“Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” is a 1944 triptych painted by the Irish-born artist Francis Bacon. The work is based on the Eumenides or Furies, of Aeschylus’ The Oresteia, and depicts three writhing anthropomorphic creatures set against a flat burnt orange background. The triptych was executed in oil paint and pastel on Sundeala fibre board, and was completed within the space of two weeks. The work summarizes themes explored in Bacon’s previous paintings, including his examination of Picasso’s biomorphs, and his interpretations of the Crucifixion and the Greek Furies. Bacon did not realize his original intention to paint a large crucifixion scene and place the figures at the foot of the cross.
This triptych is generally considered Bacon’s first mature piece, as he regarded his works before the triptych as irrelevant and throughout his life he tried to suppress their appearance in the art market. When the painting was first exhibited in 1945, it caused a sensation, and helped to establish him as one of the foremost post-war painters. Commenting on its cultural significance, the critic John Russell observed in 1971 that “there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one … can confuse the two.”
Furthermore, Bacon often created second versions of his major paintings. In 1988, he completed a near-copy of the original Three Studies. This second version is more than twice the size of the original, the orange background has been replaced by a blood-red hue and the figures occupy a smaller proportion of the canvas. Critical opinion was mixed and the 1988 triptych drew criticism from those who felt that its more refined painting technique robbed the image of much of its power. Critic Jonathan Meades felt that while the 1988 triptych was a more polished and painterly work, it lacked the rawness of the original. This triptych can now be seen in Tate Modern, whilst a closer encounter will make you aware of Bacon’s strenght in creating emotional spaces.