Francis Bacon’s Last Painting


“We come from nothing and go into nothing.” Francis Bacon

The English painter Francis Bacon died in 1992 in Madrid, Spain.

Guggenheim Bilbao, November 2016

This is a post about his last painting, “Study of a Bull”, which was shown to the public for the fist time in exhibitions in Monaco and Bilbao in 2016-2017.

Bullfighting is a topic which has fascinated Bacon, primarily as a result of his relationship with Pablo Picasso and Michel Leiris, a French anthropologist and writer.

I will trace Picasso’s and Michel Leiris’s influence on Bacon on the topic and then discuss Bacon’s last painting in the context of the end of his life and his work on bullfighting.

In doing so, I will try to answer the question: Is the last painting the end to the series of bullfighting pictures that Bacon painted, or is it a stand alone picture? If it is not about bullfighting, what is it about?

The reader who cannot wait to find out the answers to the questions can go straight to the last section of the post, and avoid the detour to Picasso, Michel Leiris and Bacon’s bullfighting pictures.

Pablo Picasso

‘Picasso is the reason why I paint. He is the father figure, who gave me the wish to paint.’
Francis Bacon
Pablo Picasso, Bullfighting Scene / Scène de Tauromachie,1957

As he has confessed, Picasso had an enormous influence on Bacon.

Bullfight Scene 1960 Pablo Picasso 1881-1973 Presented by Gustav and Elly Kahnweiler 1974, accessioned 1994

The bullfight was a subject Picasso returned to frequently, particularly from the mid-1950s, and also one of his favorite spectator sports. Picasso, who had been taken to the Malaga bullring from an early age, was an avid follower of bullfights and after moving to Provence would often travel to the arenas of Arles, Nîmes or Vallauris to see them. Picasso’s friend and biographer Roland Penrose has written that, apart from his enjoyment of the action, ‘the main involvement for Picasso was not so much with the parade and the skill of the participants but with the ancient ceremony of the precarious triumph of man over beast … The man, his obedient ally the horse, and the bull were all victims of an inextricable cycle of life and death.’ (Roland Penrose, ‘Beauty and the Monster’, in Penrose and Golding 1973, p.170.) [1]

PICASSO, Pablo Ruiz_Corrida de toros, 1934_706 (1976.83)

The close relationship between the world of bullfighting and Picasso’s oeuvre is unquestionable. From his childhood days in Málaga, where his father often took him to the bullring, he was greatly fascinated by the national sport. In addition to the artistic possibilities of the bullfight — a theme steeped in drama, which would prove very useful at certain conflictive times — Picasso regarded it as an expression of Spanishness: “The life of the Spanish consists of Mass in the morning, the bullfight in the afternoon, and the whorehouse at night. What element do they have in common? Sadness, ” he came out with to André Malraux one day. 
The bull, the artist’s alter ego, is laden with symbolism, although always infused with ambiguous meanings. It can be a metaphor for different types of human conduct — be it violence, eroticism or love — and can also be portrayed as a violent killer or poor victim. [4]

Michel Leiris

La corrida toute entière baigne dans une atmosphere érotique

(The whole bullfight is bathed in an erotic atmosphere)

– Michel Leiris, Miroir de la tauromachie, 1964.

The other person who influenced Bacon on the subject of bullfighting was the French anthropologist and writer Michel Leiris (1901-1990). As Cathreine Howe observes in her article on Bacon and Leiris [6], until recently Leiris was not well known to the English speaking world and for this reason his influence on Bacon has not been noted as it should. Bacon met Leiris in London in 1965 through Alberto Giacometti, who was in town for his exhibition in Tate Gallery, and they became close friends. Their friendship was bolstered by Leiris’s close relationship with  Sonia Orwell.

Leiris was influenced by Raymond Roussel as a child and was later involved in surrealism from a far, movement which he left in order to join George Bataille and his dissident magazine Documents. He combined his quest for self-identity with his thirst for change and alterity. His ethnolographic research and methodology began when he participated, as an archivist, in the first French ethnographic mission in Africa, the “Mission Dakar-Djibouti” (1931-33) conducted by Marcel Griaule, during which he wrote L’Afrique fantôme, combining ethnographic field study with autobiographical style. After the war, he travelled to the Caribbean accompanied by Alfred Metraux who introduced him to voodoo rites and rituals. Passionate about bullfighting, Leiris also enjoyed jazz, opera, pictures and shows which he considered as “grounds of truth”. As a professional ethnographer, Africanist at Musée de l’Homme, he initiated the first work on plastic arts in Sub-Saharan Africa. He has moreover written numerous autobiographical works that revolutionised the genre including L’Âge d’homme and La Règle du Jeu. [3]

“What interested me in Bacon was that he communicated through paintings what my friend David Sylvester calls (after an expression that Bacon used in talking about Picasso) the brutality of fact.” Michel Leiris [2]

Francis BACON, Portrait of Michel Leiris, 1976
Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris
© The Estate of Francis Bacon / All rights reserved / ADAGP, Paris 2014
© Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Bertrand Prévost

In the second issue of Minotaure (the surrealists’ journal) Michel Leiris made a lengthy examination of a North African sect, whose well-being depended on the annual sacrifice of a bull. The article was accompanied by a series of documentary photographs which showed the participants exorcising evil through the slow execution of the animal. He also likened this ritual practice to a bullfight performed by hand, where certain procedures, such as the bull falling to the right, had to be strictly followed. [5]

In 1980 Leiris refused to accept the National Grand Prize of Letters, commenting that he did not want to be a topic for the media. In his obituary, The New York Times noted that Leiris compared the process of writing to a bullfight and likened the writer to a matador. [8]

Bacon and Bullfighting

In 1969, Bacon painted three studies for a bullfight, most likely following discussions with Michel Leiris. Leiris first attended a bullfight in 1926, with Pablo Picasso.

Study for Bullfight No. 1 (1969), Francis Bacon © DACS/The Estate of Francis Bacon


signed, titled, and dated 1969 on the reverse
oil on canvas
78¾ x 58? in. 200 x 147.7 cm.

“Second Version of Study for Bullfight No. 1” (1969), was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in New York in November 2007 for $45.9 million.

Francis Bacon, Study for a Bullfight No. 2. 1969 © ADAGP Paris 2007. Oil on canvas, H. 198.3; W. 147,5 cm
Bequest of Jacqueline Delubac, 1997

Isolated within a circular shape, the bullfighter and the bull are represented as confronting each other in the bullring. Movement is suggested by a series of curves on the ground and in the air that evoke the turning motion of the beast and the passes of the muleta. Eliminating any trace of storytelling, Bacon provides a “strictly physical” interpretation of the bullfight (Leiris). Although in the painting at Lyon a large flat orange area is structured around a space with an open panel where a crowd can been seen, in another version with a reversed composition, Bacon has closed this panel. Painted in the same shades of brown and mauve, the two figures are inseparable from each other. The artist has deformed the bullfighter’s body. By brushing and cleaning the canvas, he has erased the head from the human shape and endowed it with a certain animalism. The red square above the crowd, featuring a circle and surmounted with an object resembling a vulture, has often been compared to a Nazi emblem. It was probably taken from the news photos that Bacon collected and left scattered around the floor of his studio. [7]

After the three studies Bacon returned to bullfighting in 1987 with a triptych.

Francis Bacon. Triptych 1987. Francis Bacon Estate

“Triptych 1987 depicts a bullfight in which the bull came off best – at least for a moment. The inspiration for this was a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias, which describes the death of a matador.”

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The last painting

Francis Bacon: Study of a Bull. Underneath the bull Bacon has used real dust from his famously shambolic studio in South Kensington. Photograph: The estate of Francis Bacon All rights reserved, DACS 2016

“Bacon’s scream is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth.”

Gilles Deleuze on Bacon’s Pope paintings,

In 1992 Bacon was 82 years old, and his health was deteriorating.

In the spring he decided to go to Madrid, in spite of his doctor’s advice not to travel, as his asthma was in a critical condition. It was not only Prado and the temperate climate that led Bacon to the decision to travel to Madrid.

Francis Bacon in the Prado Museum, Madrid. 1990.

Bacon had spent a few years in love with a young Spanish financier whom he met at a party in honor of choreographer Frederick Ashton. [9] Apparently he went to Madrid to meet his Spanish friend, who was 42 years his junior.

Thinking along the same lines, it is nor unreasonable to assume that Bacon wanted to paint something about Spain, and picked the bull as a symbol of Spain. If this is a correct assumption, the painting does not have a direct relationship to bullfighting, only an indirect one.

But what about the painting itself? Is it the last in the sequence of Bacon’s bullfighting pictures, or does it stand by itself and has nothing to do with bullfighting?

It is clear that the intensity of Bacon’s paintings is absent. Delleuze would agree that there is no scream coming out of this picture. Only silence. The painting has three colors only and a big part of the canvas is empty. The Bull, the subject of the painting is half real, half abstract. Some see the animal entering the painting, some see it exiting. There is no matador, there are no spectators.

The painter of defomred bleeding wounded flesh has made flesh disappear from his last painting. Is it because as Anthony Storr wrote in old age we move from the concrete to abstraction?

Is there a symbolism behind all these aspects of the painting, or is it simply that Bacon was too ill and tired to paint as he did in his younger years?

We will never know.

My impression though is that Bacon used the Bull as the symbol of Death. He opens the door of his life to Death, he does it himself, just so that he familiarizes himelf with Death, by painting it. There is nothing else in the painitng, it is an empty painting if you take the Bull out. This represents the condition that humans face when confronted with Death. Man faces Death alone, in an empty space that seizes to be space and time stops.

As Death is the eraser of life, Bacon does not bother to use a lot of colors, it does not make sense any more. Everything will be erased anyway, so why bother?



[1] Tate Gallery, Pablo Picasso, Bullfight Scene (1960)

[2] Sally Price and Jean Jamin: A Conversation with Michel Leiris. Current Anthropology, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb., 1988), pp. 157-174

[3] Leiris & Co. Picasso, Masson, Miró, Giacometti, Lam, Bacon…Centre Pompidou-Metz 2015

[4] Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, Pablo Picasso, Bullfight 1934 


[6] Catherine Howe. Bacon, Leiris: The Impossibility of Presence. In “Francis Bacon, France and Monaco”, edited by Martin Harrison.

[7] Francis Bacon. Study for a Bullfight, no. 2. Fine Arts Museum, Lyon, France

[8] Michael Peppiatt. Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait. Yale University Press 2008.

[9] Roban cinco obras de Francis Bacon en la casa de su amante español en Madrid. ABC Cultura.