16392 3508

Study of a Bull

Francis Bacon
Study of a Bull, 1991
Oil, aerosol paint, and dust on canvas
198 x 147.5 cm
Private collection

“We die famous instead of being the unknown soldier. And we always talk rubbish in the small world of art. Perhaps what we have in common [with Picasso] is the fact that we like life above all. But Picasso invented everything. After him, we can no longer paint without thinking of him.” Francis Bacon, 1992 [1]

Francis Bacon (b. 1909, Dublin; d. 1992, Madrid) spent the first 20 years of his life moving between England, Ireland, Paris, and Berlin [2]. In Paris, the artist visited an exhibition of Pablo Picasso (Málaga, 1881–Mougins, 1973) in 1927 which so captivated him that he decided to become a self-taught painter. Picasso’s impact on Bacon as both a person and an artist was so great that throughout Bacon’s entire career, which runs virtually parallel to that of Picasso, his painting output oftentimes reflects the same themes and styles as the Spanish artist. In addition to being a passionate fan of Picasso’s art, Bacon was also fascinated by other classical Spanish masters, including Zurbarán, El Greco, Goya, and Velázquez, whose works he had several chances to see in person at the Prado. He particularly became more familiar with Velázquez’s oeuvre at a retrospective of the artist held at the Prado in 1990.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Bacon travelled a great deal and spent time in places like Monaco, southern France, Spain, and Africa [3]. This is when his obsession with the world of bullfighting started, probably triggered by his trips to southern France and Spain, countries where he had the chance to attend bullfights in person [4].

His experience at these bullfights, combined with his admiration of Picasso’s work and Lorca’s literature—particularly his pieces on bullfighting—must have spurred Bacon to paint these themes repeatedly [5]. Bacon’s work was also heavily influenced by the writings of his close friend, the French author Michel Leiris (Paris, 1901–Saint-Hilaire, 1990) [6]. Miroir de la tauromachie (1938) is the first book that Leiris sent Bacon on the topic of bullfighting, and it went on to inspire Bacon’s first paintings on this subject in the late 1960s: Study for a Bullfight No. 1 (1969) and Second Version of Study for a Bullfight two years later (1971) [7]. Later, Bacon continued to return to the topic of bullfighting, even down to his last creation, Study of a Bull (1991), painted one year before his death.

In the works he painted during the latter years of his career, bulls morphed into the image of the beast, the brute strength that he realized he no longer had [8]. Bacon felt extremely weak when painting his last work because he was suffering from pneumonia, which was exacerbated by the asthma he had suffered from since childhood. In Study of a Bull, the image of the animal is ambiguous. The bull seems to be emerging from a black rectangle towards the light, while at the same time disappearing into the adjacent white shape. As is customary in bullfights, the animal emerges from the darkness (bull pen) into the light of the arena, where the bullfighter who will kill him is awaiting in his fancy traje de luces.

In Bacon’s painting, the bull looks weak, and it is not clear whether he is trying to escape from the bullring or enter it. In this last work, Bacon was likely trying to express that he was dying and was aware of it [9]. In 1992, against the advice of his friends and doctors, Bacon travelled to Madrid for vacation, and he died there on April 28.


Look carefully at this painting. What do you see? How would you describe it? Make a list of the words that occur to you as you look at it. Study of a Bull was the painter’s last work. How does your perception of this scene change now that you know that? What words would you add to the list now that you know that this was Bacon’s last painting? Compare your list with a classmate’s. What words did both of you write? What terms are different? Discuss your choice of words with your partner.

Most of the canvas, which is more than two meters tall, is left blank; that is, the artist deliberately left the canvas unpainted. Why do you think Bacon left this huge empty space in the work? Bacon also used very few colors in this painting. Why do you think the artist chose only black, white and off-white to paint Study of a Bull? How would your perception of it change if he had used all the colors in the rainbow?

Under the figure of the bull on the canvas itself, Bacon added real dust taken from the dust that had gathered in his chaotic studio in London. Can you see where he put it? Why do you think an artist would use this kind of material? How do you think it is related to the subject or to the time in his life when he painted it? Do you think Bacon was using this dust to try to represent anything specific?

Some historians think that Bacon was close to death when he painted this work [10]. If that is true, why do you think he chose this subject for his last work?

If you could change the title of this painting to make it more poetic or metaphorical, what title would you give it? Why?