One of Francis Bacon’s ‘screaming popes’ sells at auction for £39m

A Francis Bacon painting considered one of his most important left in private hands has sold at auction for more than 50 million US dollars (£39 million), Sotheby’s said.

Study For A Head (1952), from Bacon’s “screaming popes” series, had been estimated to fetch between 20 to 30 million US dollars when it went under the hammer in New York on Thursday.

Instead it was sold for 50.4 million US dollars.

Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon

The painting had remained in the collection of Richard E Lang and Jane Lang Davis since 1975 and had only been exhibited in public once before now in its 57-year history, Sotheby’s said.

The identity of the buyer was not immediately available.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, to British parents, Bacon took up painting in his 20s and went on to become a world-leading artist and one of the most prominent of the 20th century.

According to Sotheby’s, Study For A Head is Bacon confronting his disciplinarian father, who expelled him from the family home after catching him wearing his mother’s underwear.

The painting shows a screaming man. It is one of six from the collection, which was inspired by Diego Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X.

#AuctionUpdate: Bringing home the Bacon: From the collection of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, Francis Bacon’s ‘Study for a Head’, an outstanding example of the artist’s most recognizable iconography: the ‘screaming Pope’ brings $50.4 million

— Sotheby's (@Sothebys) May 16, 2019

Gregoire Billault, head of Sotheby’s contemporary art department in New York, said: “Study For A Head is the very best of six portrait heads completed by Francis Bacon in 1952 and one of only two of the artist’s iconic ‘screaming popes’ executed in this head-and-shoulders format.

“The painting contains all the elements of the artist’s best-known works from this period – broken pince-nez glasses, a purple mozzetta and of course the reverberating scream – and draws inspiration from the works of Velazquez, Munch and Poussin, as well as Bacon’s lifelong exploration of the human condition.”

Other works from this series now reside at Tate Britain, London and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.

Bacon died from a heart attack in 1992.