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Portrait of Michel Leiris

Francis Bacon
Portrait of Michel Leiris, 1976
Oil on canvas
34 x 29 cm
Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris—Musée National d’Art Moderne. Centre de Création Industrielle. Gift Louise and Michel Leiris, 1984

“You know in my case all painting—and the older I get, the more it becomes so—is accident. So I foresee it in my mind, I foresee it, and yet I hardly ever carry it out as I foresee it. It transforms itself by the actual paint. I use very large brushes, and in the way I work I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do. Is that an accident? Perhaps one could say it’s not an accident, because it becomes a selective process which part of this accident one chooses to preserve. One is attempting, of course, to keep the vitality of the accident and yet preserve a continuity.” Francis Bacon[1]

In 1965, Francis Bacon (b. 1909, Dublin; d. 1992, Madrid) met Michel Leiris (b. 1901, Paris: d. 1990, Saint-Hilaire) at the opening of an exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery devoted to Alberto Giacometti (b. 1901, Borgonovo, Switzerland; d. 1966, Chur, Switzerland). Leiris, a French writer, poet, and ethnographer, became a close friend and admirer of the artist, and Bacon was the inspiration for the last writings of his life. Their friendship was based on profound intellectual affinities, as well as on their shared attraction to the supernatural and the unfathomable ambiguity of the human soul [2]. Leiris was one of the prime analysts of Bacon’s oeuvre, and his interpretations were among the few that the painter actually accepted [3].

During the early years of his career, Bacon devoted himself to exploring different styles and creating his own, unique style. In around the 1960s, he began to focus increasingly on portraits, especially of his closest friends, some of whom had been photographed by John Deakin (b. 1912, Wirral peninsula, UK: d. 1972, Brighton, UK) on commission from the artist. Deakin’s images, photo booth strips, and the photographs taken by Bacon himself would be important elements that supported his evolution from the generic representation of the human body to portraits of specific people [4]. Bacon preferred to work from photographs, since he felt freer when the models were not present in his studio [5]. His preference for working from reproductions can clearly be seen in his ongoing obsession with the portrait that Velázquez painted of Pope Innocent X in 1650. Bacon only knew of the portrait through reproductions, even though he had had the chance to see it in person in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome on a trip to the Italian capital in 1954. However, Bacon preferred to see copies instead of the original in his memory as he painted more than 50 works using this motif.

Bacon’s sources of inspiration also included certain books with art illustrations or medical science or anthropology books, as well as clippings from newspapers and magazines, which filled every nook and cranny of his studio, piled up haphazardly and tossed on top each other willy-nilly. However, his paintings do not strive to resemble his models; rather he deliberately modifies the expressions and characteristics of his sitters in order to show more general features of the human condition [6]. His depictions seek to portray the not models’ physical features but instead their spiritual state [7].

Bacon painted this portrait of Leiris in the mid-1970s. Despite the distortion of his face, Leiris is recognizable behind the mask that reveals his personality [8]. The writer’s face is very important in this work because it reflects the true essence of Leiris’s activity, which lay precisely in his head, his thoughts. Bacon stressed his facial features by making them larger than life. In this way, he accentuated the importance of sensorial perception when analyzing the world and acquiring knowledge. The disproportionate eye and nose, the enormous lips, all of them somewhat skewed in their placement, allude to the writer’s profession. In this image, Bacon took the genre of portraiture a step further. The deformation of the physical features is not motivated by aesthetics, as there is no attempt to represent movement or capture a fleeting moment; rather, to the contrary, the distortion of the facial features is used to express the subject’s personality. Bacon’s intention was to deform his model’s appearance in order to reach a deeper truth [9].


Look carefully at the portrait of Leiris. What draws your attention? How is this portrait different from other portraits you have seen before?

Describe the physical features that you see in the image. What are the eyes like? What is his mouth like? What is the shape and size of his nose? What kind of clothing is he wearing?

It was very important for Bacon that his works reflected the personality and mood of his models. What do you imagine Leiris’s personality was like? What features of his personality appear in the painting? What does the facial expression tell you about this person?

Look for a photograph of Leiris and notice the similarities and differences between this picture and the painting. What aspects of his face did Bacon change? Why do you think the artist exaggerates or distorts Leiris’s physical appearance? Why do you think he exaggerates these features but not others?

Describe the colors in this work. How do you think it would change the way we see the painting if Bacon had used a more colorful palette? Look at how Bacon applied the brushstrokes and try to trace the most important lines in the portrait (you can even trace them in the air, using imaginary paintbrushes). How would you describe them?