Bacon was a key figure in the School of London, a group of artists pursuing figurative painting in the decades following World War II. Throughout his career, Bacon endeavored, he said, “to make the best painting of the human cry.” Study for Portrait VII began as a portrait of David Sylvester, an art critic and close friend of the artist, and progressed into an explicit citation of the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X (c. 1650), a stern-faced image of Pope Innocent X in his robes, seated on a throne-like gilded chair.
Bacon’s painting is the seventh in a series of eight throughout which the figure’s relatively calm expression transforms into a convulsive scream. The image of open-mouthed terror is a recurring motif in his work, and he often used imagery from earlier art to address themes of suffering and existential torment, a way of coming to terms with the violence and aftereffects of the war. “I would like someday to trap a moment of life in its full violence, its full beauty,” he said. “That would be the ultimate painting.”
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)