On June 29, Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, the sixth of 28 monumental triptychs produced by the artist between 1962 and 1991, sold for $84.6 million USD at Sotheby’s first hybrid auction that was held entirely without an audience. This work has now become the artist’s third most expensive work following Three Studies of Lucian Freud, which sold for $142.4 million at Christie’s in 2013 and Triptych, which sold at Sotheby’s for $86.2 million in 2008.
The triptych features three panels measuring 6.5 x 5 feet, and the title refers to the trilogy of tragedies written by the Greek playwright Aeschylus in the fifth century BC. Bacon takes inspiration from the story following Agamemnon, king of the Mycenae, who is killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, when he returned from the Trojan war. She seeks to take his throne, but is then murdered by her own son, Orestes, who was commanded to do so by Apollo, god of the sun. Orestes is driven from the kingdom by the Furies, goddesses of revenge, and is put on trial by Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, for killing his mother. Athena decided Orestes will not be killed for his actions, but from then on every crime must be settled in a court. This set the foundation for our modern justice system and the use of court trials.
Bacon expands on themes of morality and justice in this work, and creates an arresting abstract and surreal version of the Greek tragedy. Alex Branczik, Head of Contemporary Art for Sotheby’s Europe, commented, “Francis Bacon is the great tragedian of his age. In this ambitious triptych, the painter confronts Aeschylus, the progenitor of tragedy, so that the timeless power of the Ancient Greek genre is brought to bear on the human condition in the 20th century. The result is an arresting and original vision, a true masterpiece that confirms Bacon’s standing in the pantheon of modern masters.”
The work was bought in 1987 by Norwegian billionaire Hans Rasmus Astrup, and has been housed in his private museum, the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo. Astrup donated his commercial assets and works to his eponymous charity, the Hans Rasmus Astrup Foundation, in 2013. The profits from this sale will be put towards diversifying his museum’s collection.