Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing seizes our attention, like a person whose arrival lights up a room. We become immersed in it, gazing at a painting that, irrespective of the mysteriously, equivocally closed eyes, confronts us just as intently. Since I am no longer compiling an objective catalogue of Bacon’s oeuvre, I can admit that some of his paintings impress me more than others. For me, Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing is one of Bacon’s great paintings, and this essay is, in part, an attempt to explain why I hold it in such high regard.
Bacon did not approach the empty canvas without an idea of what he wanted to paint, but he was trying to convey feelings—about himself, life and death, and of his subject—that were problematic to express in paint. To do so required both dexterity and an unforced sense of conviction that are impossible to maintain with absolute consistency. He worked alone in his studio. Often unwell, or anxious, it would be unreasonable to ask of him, or of any artist, to unfailingly maintain the level of inspiration, energy and exhilaration that resulted in Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing. It is real, timeless: we experience its presence viscerally, as Bacon said he felt his paintings in himself—somatically—when they were working.
With only a perfunctory art training, Bacon had to forge his own repertory of technical skills. His most important lessons were gained through looking closely at paintings he admired. He made some early experiments in watercolors and gouache, but by 1932 he had settled on oils as his principal medium. His initial motivation to try to paint was Picasso, whose imagery rather than his craft fired his imagination; he learned more about technique from Matisse, Léger and Lurçat, and more directly from his friend, Roy de Maistre. By the late-1940s, when Bacon began to apply paint in more radical ways, he was absorbing from Velázquez, Rembrandt, Seurat and Degas, rather than his near-contemporaries. His first exhibition at the Hanover Gallery, London, in 1949, won the admiration of London’s small coterie of avant-garde artists and critics for the physical presence of Bacon’s paintings, their palpable “realism;” (it should also be noted that Alfred Barr had presciently acquired Painting 1946 for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1948). Thereafter his reputation grew steadily, during a period that culminated in his first retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1962. This prestigious event was the catalyst for the reformulation of his painting practice, formally, technically and iconographically. Shortly afterwards he began to paint serial portraits of his close friends, Lucian Freud, Isabel Rawsthorne, George Dyer, and Henrietta Moraes.
Henrietta Moraes was born Audrey Wendy Abbott, in Shimla, India, in 1931. Raised mainly by an abusive grandmother, she never saw her father, who served in the Indian Air Force and who deserted the family when her mother was pregnant. In escaping her troubled childhood, she grew up a self-styled Bohemian, drifted into the Soho milieu inhabited by Bacon, and modelled for artists. An affair with Lucian Freud resulted in the painting Girl in a Blanket, 1953. Her great love was reputedly the artist John Minton, a homosexual; she lived in what was, in effect, a ménage-a-trois with Minton and Norman Bowler, whom she married in 1956 and with whom she had two children. Minton took his own life in 1957, leaving his house, 9 Apollo Place, Chelsea, to Henrietta; Bacon had stayed here in 1953, and it was here that John Deakin took the notorious nude photographs of Henrietta about 1959. She was thirty-eight when Bacon painted Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing, with several suicide attempts and three failed marriages behind her. Her marriage to the Indian poet Dom Moraes, in 1961 was short-lived, but she kept his name. Thus, she typified Bacon’s ideal woman-friend—sexually uninhibited, unconventional, spirited if vulnerable, gregarious, and a serious drinker. On 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.
The first paintings Bacon made of Henrietta Moraes in which she was identified in the title date from 1963–a small triptych and a large nude, both of which are outstanding. Moraes was the “model” for all of Bacon’s female nudes after 1959, which he never painted from life; their body positions were based on photographs he had commissioned for this purpose from John Deakin. Similarly, Deakin provided the head-and-shoulders photographs that served as guides for Bacon’s standard triptych arrangement: right-facing, frontal, and left-facing. Numerous photographs of Moraes were found in Bacon’s studio, variously manipulated, torn and folded, but none that would have functioned effectively for the tilted head in Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing. Indeed, if evidence remains in the painting of Deakin’s photographs, it is of marginal relevance, for Bacon reformulated the image of Moraes from other stimuli.
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. In 1969 he had already painted two small-format triptychs of Moraes, both titled Three Studies of Henrietta Moraes. The right-hand panel of the later triptych, in particular, anticipates certain characteristics of Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing; although Moraes’s eyes are open, the distortion of the mouth and the angle of the left-turning head are comparable. Closer still, is Moraes’s head in Study of Nude with Figure in Mirror, 1969. In this painting, the darkly-rimmed eyes and diversion of the nose leave no doubt that Bacon was referencing Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, specifically the heads of the two figures on the right. Bacon said in his first interview with David Sylvester, in 1962: “... I think there’s a whole area there suggested by Picasso, which in a way has been unexplored, of organic form that relates to the human image but is a complete distortion of it.” It has been assumed that Bacon was speaking solely of Picasso’s biomorphic forms of the “Cannes/Dinard” period, but his extended dialogue with Picasso was more diverse and more complicated than that, as we shall see.
Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing was painted three months after the nude. It is now well known that the extra deformation of Moraes’s features depended in part on a still-frame image from Alain Resnais’s film, Hiroshima mon Amour, 1959; it shows a smiling Emmanuelle Riva in a shower scene with Eiji Okada, a strand of wet hair straggling down across Riva’s face. Bacon had seen the film, but he found the strange and striking image that he further manipulated in a book. The darkened eye sockets must have resonated with his mental picture of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, or rather, with his recent appropriation and adjustment of two of Picasso’s demoiselles, and Bacon elided these two images. Evidently, he regarded the torn, eventually paint-spattered photograph as talismanic, for instead of throwing it onto the piles of detritus on his studio floor, he preserved it by attaching with paper-clips to a piece of card.
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 descriptive adjectives to their titles, countering potentially anecdotal and narrative interpretations; evidently, he soon regretted adding the word “laughing,” and had Marlborough Fine Art remove it from the official title. I had not seen the reverse of the canvas when compiling the Bacon Catalogue Raisonné, but the pragmatic “common usage” argument I adhered to for titles would have been problematized by the fact that Bacon himself had originally written “laughing.” There is no correct procedure governing this debatable question, but the shorter title published in the Catalogue Raisonné may need to be adjusted, or certainly augmented.
Moreover, the laugh that Bacon adverted to is crucially significant, since it was a salient aspect of Moraes, the individual: Dom Moraes, for example, attested to her conversation being punctuated by a ‘noisy, emphatic laugh’. To be sure, in the painting it is an ambivalent laugh—it could be interpreted as an animalistic snarl. In this respect, it is analogous to Bacon’s so-called ‘screaming’ popes, which was a title he never employed; the popes’ gestures in fact convey a much wider range of emotions. In The Naked Ape, 1967, Bacon’s acquaintance Desmond Morris analyzed the laugh as a multivalent signal, as social, automatic and intimate. Bacon owned a copy of Morris’ book, which outraged some by relating the behavioral patterns and facial gestures of humans to those of hominoidea; these, of course, were concepts Bacon had been expressing in his paintings since the 1940s. Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing suggests Henrietta’s animal nature in the teeth and jaw line, which metamorphose into tusk-like features. If her laugh is equally a grimace, it may be that of a predator viewing its prey, or a victim warning off a potential attacker. Bacon had been observing Moraes for more than fifteen years: this portrait documents his assessment of her animal spirit.
Since Moraes’s laugh could 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; Moraes’s neckline, too, is similar to La Gioconda’s. Several circumstances support this conjecture, including the theft of the Leonardo from the Louvre Museum in 1911, in which Picasso and Apollinaire had at one point been implicated. Bacon was an avid follower of crime reporting, partly because criminality reinforced his low expectations of human behaviour. Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing also has affinities with Picasso’s portrait of Dora Maar, Femme assise, robe bleue, 1939, the “smile” in which has also been compared with that of the Mona Lisa; Bacon was probably aware, too, of the coincidence that Maar’s first name was actually Henriette. These correlations, if speculative, are compelling in the context of Bacon’s theoretical discourse with Picasso. The facial distortions in the two paintings are not dissimilar, and Bacon is likely to have known that Paul Rosenberg, whose gallery in Paris was the site of his epiphanic encounter with Picasso’s paintings in 1927, had bought the painting of Maar in 1940; he would have relished its provenance—its larceny by the Nazis, and the recovery of it in 1944 when French Resistance forces intercepted the train transporting looted artworks to Germany. The 1964 film, The Train, dramatized these events, and Lt. Alexandre Rosenberg’s part in the recovery of the paintings, which included identifying his father’s Picasso.
In December 1968, Bacon’s studio was trashed by his lover, George Dyer, in a fit of rage and jealousy. While it was being repaired, from January to August 1969, Bacon worked in a studio in the nearby Royal College of Art; the arrangement benefitted Bacon and the college, whose Rector, Sir Robin Darwin, welcomed Bacon’s ‘electric mind’ being accessible to the students. The change of location coincided with Bacon starting to paint on yellow grounds, beginning with an atypical profile rendition in Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1969. Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing was the first painting he completed after returning to his Reece Mews studio. In its first state the ground was yellow, and his repainting of it in lavender recalls a color-cipher employed by Picasso in his erotic paintings of Marie-Thérèse Walter; in this instance, the trace of yellow that Bacon retained around the head significantly reinforces the auratic undertone of the portrait.
Although the present painting was the last to which Bacon attached Henrietta Moraes’s name, he did paint two further small triptychs of her in 1976, both titled Three Studies for a Portrait. In these triptychs all three panels recycle the elements of Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing, which Bacon evidently regarded as the ur-painting among his portraits of Moraes. Indeed, in the latter of the 1976 triptychs, Bacon repeated the leftward tilt of the head in all three panels—abandoning his right-facing, frontal, left-facing format: rather than a straightforward triple portrait of Moraes, it is a triplicated reworking of Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing. This unique circumstance in Bacon’s oeuvre further underlines his approbation—a rare enough occurrence—of the original.
Bacon, who was not close to his family, was very fond of his sister, Ianthe; Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing was probably always intended for his 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris, but it was also a gift to Ianthe, whom he had visited in South Africa soon after completing the painting, and which emphasizes its special status. The satisfaction that the exhibition at the Grand Palais gave the Francophile Bacon was intensified by the fact that he was only the second artist to receive the honour in his lifetime: the first was Picasso, in 1966–1967. 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 20th century artist Bacon respected, and against whom he measured himself. In Picasso’s Grand Palais (and Petit Palais) retrospective, which Bacon attended, he was able to renew his acquaintance with Picasso’s Femme en chemise, assise dans un fauteuil, 1913 – 1914, which had been included in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition, in London. An intriguing painting, marking Picasso’s return to depicting female sexuality, towards the end of his Synthetic Cubism period, it was Bacon’s favorite Picasso: in its iconography it invites comparison with Bacon’s paintings of Moraes generically, and, if possibly fortuitously, in its palette with Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing.
Historically, in the etiquette of Western culture, broad smiles and open-mouthed laughing were considered vulgar, and were seldom depicted in art. In the medieval church only a beatific smile was considered decorous: the rare exceptions, such as gargoyles, or the ambiguous smiles of the sculptures at Strasbourg and Lincoln cathedrals, were not immediately obvious from ground level. The painted portrait in Western art is generally understood to have evolved during the late fourteenth century in the French royal court, driven by a developing interest in selfhood. In the late Middle Ages, individual likeness was comprehended as a complex quality, to be portrayed through costume, heraldic symbols, objects as attributes, and textual inserts, rather than a realistic representation. From the Renaissance through to the invention of photography there was a requirement that a portrait be lifelike, if sometimes flattering. But Bacon was interested in more than this: he aimed to literally get under the skin of his subjects, to remake their essence.
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.
Such were the risks Bacon took, technically as well as conceptually, that it was inevitable not all of his paintings would “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:” the 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. Our gaze is drawn to the eyes—perhaps in the transitional motion of blinking –and moves ineluctably to the mouth—the site of the “laugh:” the allusions to dental instruments and X-ray photographs are incisive aspects of the “injury” Bacon said he did to his sitters. 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.