With comparisons to the Mona Lisa and Picasso’s Dora Maar, Christie’s is pulling out the stops for Si Newhouse’s Francis Bacon small portrait of Henrietta Moraes that the auction house just announced for the November sales. Newhouse played an important role as a collector launching the current contemporary art market with his aggressive buying in the late 1990s that established important prices and demand. Over the last two decades, many of his significant pieces have been sold and re-sold at stratospheric mark-ups. The power of the Newhouse provenance is not necessarily reflected in the $14m low estimate on the Bacon being offered here. Katya Kazakina spoke to Tobias Meyer, who is handling the dispersal of Newhouse’s art collection, about the original acquisition in 2007. Kazakina says Newhouse, who was not afraid to pay good prices for works of quality he wanted to own, paid $9m for the work.
Here’s Christie’s release on the painting:
“Formally, Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing is a miracle of compression and conciseness: it has the concentrated intensity of portraits by, say, Robert Campin or Rogier van der Weyden, which it does not otherwise resemble. It may appear contradictory to describe Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing as perfect, which is how I think of it, since this would preclude the rawness and immediacy that one expects of Bacon, but these aspects are undoubtedly present in the painting: he was refining the image of Moraes he had created, cumulatively, through the 1960s – it is the distillation of all the paintings, expressing his feelings for her and his understanding of her psyche.”
– Martin Harrison, British curator and authority on Francis Bacon New York
On November 15, Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale will be highlighted by Francis Bacon’s Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing (estimate: $14-18 million). This coveted painting comes from the Collection of S.I. Newhouse, one of the greatest connoisseur art collectors of the 20th Century revered for his innate ability to recognize and acquire only pinnacle works: those that most fully embody the unique vision of their respective makers at the height of their power. Having only had two owners in its 49-year history, counting the artist’s sister, Ianthe Bacon, and Mr. Newhouse, Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing is now being offered at auction for the very first time.
Guillaume Cerutti, Christie’s CEO, remarked: “It is an honour for Christie’s to present Francis Bacon’s remarkable Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing from the Collection of S.I. Newhouse. This consummate canvas by Bacon is a wonderful representation of Mr. Newhouse’s extraordinary eye for quality, that has been constantly reflected throughout his entire art collection.”
Alex Rotter, Chairman, Post-War and Contemporary Art, continued: “Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing presents a striking closeup of Bacon’s iconic muse, which focuses not on her face, but the complexity of her psychological state. The artist’s incomparable ability to convey emotions with tangible poignance is on full display in this picture, making it a sure masterpiece within his oeuvre.”
Bacon’s Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing magnetizes the viewer’s attention in part through the powerful mystery of his sitter’s equivocally closed eyes. The artist did not approach the empty canvas without an idea of what he wanted to paint, but the feelings he wanted to express – about himself, his subject, life, and death – would have been exceptionally difficult to express in paint without his astonishing dexterity and passionate conviction. Often unwell or anxious, Bacon worked alone in his studio, wrestling with his subject matter and the monumental task of capturing the poignancy of mortality in two dimensions. His inspiration, energy, and exhilaration resulted in Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing.
Henrietta Moraes was born Audrey Wendy Abbott, in Simla, India, in 1931. Raised mainly by an abusive grandmother, she never saw her father, who served in the Indian Air Force and deserted the family when her mother was pregnant. In escaping a troubled childhood, Moraes drifted into the London Soho milieu inhabited by Bacon, and modelled for artists. She was thirty-eight when Bacon painted Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing, with several suicide attempts and three failed marriages behind her. Moraes typified Bacon’s ideal woman-friend – sexually uninhibited, unconventional, spirited if vulnerable, gregarious, and a serious drinker. For her part, Moraes regarded Bacon as a prophet, principally because his paintings of her lying on a bed with a syringe in her arm had foretold the drug addiction to which she later succumbed. Bacon painted Moraes at least twenty-three times (counting each triptych as one work) between 1959 and 1969 but ceased to do so thereafter: Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing was the final named portrait of her.
The present painting was known formerly as Study of Henrietta Moraes, 1969; it was exhibited under that title in Bacon’s major retrospectives at the Grand Palais, Paris, in 1971, and at the Tate Gallery in 1985. Beyond identifying body positions (‘Seated’, ‘Lying’, ‘Reclining’) in his paintings, Bacon never appended adjectives to their titles, hoping to discourage anecdotal and narrative interpretations. He reportedly regretted adding the word ‘Laughing’ to the title of his final painting of Moraes and had Marlborough Fine Art remove it from the work’s official title.
Moraes’s laugh can definitely be described as enigmatic (her expression invites comparison with a smile), an indication that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was in the back of Bacon’s mind. The sitter’s neckline, too, is similar to that of La Gioconda. Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing also has affinities with Picasso’s portrait of Dora Maar, Femme assise, robe bleue, 1939, wherein the sitter’s ‘smile’ has also been compared with that of the Mona Lisa. Bacon was probably aware of the coincidence that Maar’s first name was actually Henriette. These correlations, even if speculative, are particularly compelling in the context of Bacon’s theoretical discourse with Picasso.
Bacon, who was not close to his family, was very fond of his sister, Ianthe. And while Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing was likely intended for the artist’s 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris, it was also a gift to Ianthe, whom he had visited in South Africa soon after completing the painting – a gesture that gives this work additional special status. The satisfaction that the exhibition at the Grand Palais gave Bacon was intensified by the fact that he was only the second artist to receive the honor in his lifetime; the first was Picasso, in 1966-67. The Paris exhibition was an occasion that manifestly provided the incentive for Bacon to excel, not least in terms of his continuing conversation with Picasso’s art. Ultimately, Picasso was the one twentieth-century artist Bacon respected, and against whom he measured himself.
Such were the risks Bacon took, technically as well as conceptually, that it was inevitable not all his paintings would succeed or ‘come off’, as he put it. He approached the blank canvas with a mixture of confidence and apprehension, and however strong his conviction may have been at the moment he began to apply the paint, he would recount – almost with surprise, as if he had been assisted by a miracle of outside intervention – that certain paintings had ‘come off’. He was referring to the gamble he took in the act of painting, one that relied, as he habitually insisted, on ‘chance’ or ‘accident’. His risk paid off with Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing.
On a canvas of relatively small dimensions such as this, the breadth and vigor of the paintwork on his large canvases would have been inappropriately over-scaled. Yet the brushstrokes conspicuously exhibit energy and dynamism, evinced in the blending and smearing of paint across the ‘nose’ and the virtuoso application of wet pigment pressed onto fabric above the teeth and across the left eye, a non-signifying, anti-verisimilitude strategy. The flickering paint simultaneously evokes the aura of a vivid memory – contemplative, almost melancholic – and a factual presence: Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing is metaphorically alive, before us.