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Elizabeth Peyton

American Figurative painter

Elizabeth Peyton Photo
Born: 1965
Danbury, Connecticut, United States
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I think the final circle in being an artist is connecting, making some conversation to the world you're in.
Elizabeth Peyton

Summary of Elizabeth Peyton

While other girls were busy tearing pages from magazines to paste their pop idols, sports heroes, and movie star crushes on their bedroom walls, Elizabeth Peyton was painting them instead. When the 1980s and 90s brought about an upsurge in celebrity culture infiltrating mainstream media with incessant images of the latest hot fashion designers, supermodels, and society doyennes, Peyton was painting them too. She reinvented portraiture, pulling it from its dusty closet where it had been relegated to a precious past, and modernized it for the MTV age. In an era where figurative art was no longer the rave, she re-identified its importance as a documentation of one's life and the people within it. She very quickly became a celebrity artist herself, creating a new portraiture that was contemporarily stylized and idealized her circle of friends alongside the objects of her obsession, which equally included glamorous artists, New York scene-sters, literary characters, or European monarchy. This approach to putting the people of her life on canvas, both those that she intimately knew who would sit for her, and those who she admired from afar in photographs, was often critiqued for its populist popularity. Yet it can't be denied that Peyton's portraits and the lifestyles they depict, were an early forebear to today's social media impetus to share everything about the people in our lives as if we were all individuals worthy of celebrity status. Like Andy Warhol and Nan Goldin before her, Peyton joins the cache of artists who express their own lives as their greatest works of art.

Key Ideas

Biography of Elizabeth Peyton

Elizabeth Peyton Photo

Elizabeth Peyton was born and raised in Danbury, Connecticut. She learned to draw and paint with her left hand, having been born with just forefinger and thumb on her right (with which she holds her work). From an early age, Peyton was interested in celebrities as subject matter, starting with the tennis and ice-skating personalities of the 1970s. Speaking of how she selects her subjects, she has explained: "I don't really choose. It just sort of has to happen. I start listening to something or I'm seeing somebody a lot or seeing their art. And then I just really want to make a picture of them."

Important Art by Elizabeth Peyton

Napoleon (1991)

Napoleon (1991)

Elizabeth Peyton was inspired to make this portrait of the young Napoleon by reading the subject's biography by Vincent Cronin, the cover of which features his portrait by Antoine-Jean Gros. A keen reader from a young age, the book had a profound impact on Peyton. In reading it, she realized the extent to which individual people can and have shaped our world, which motivated her to make portraits.

In her own words, "Reading about Napoleon made me think how people make history. They are the way the world moves, and they contain their time. It shows in their faces. I'd always made pictures of people ... I just didn't know why. When I did that first drawing of Napoleon, I realized this is something I have to do and want to do." Having found the figure of Napoleon deeply influential, the artist went on to make further portraits of him after other sources, notably Napoleon (After Louis David, Le General Bonaparte vers 1797) (2005).

In this work, Napoleon shares the androgynous, fashionable appearance of several of Peyton's celebrity subjects. This depiction perhaps prompts the viewer to reconsider Napoleon as if he had been brought into our own age. Peyton uses the portrait to assert his relevance and express a very modern sense of fascination, notwithstanding her historic source material.

The charcoal drawing is in poor condition. It was the oldest work in Peyton's Live Forever exhibition (2008-9), in which it stood for the beginning of her career in figurative painting. The artist's youthful ambition is emphasized by the inclusion of the handwritten "Napoleon" above the image, which gives it a naïve, almost childlike appearance (and presumably references the title "Napoleon" on the cover of Cronin's book).

David Hockney, Age 32 (1997-98)

David Hockney, Age 32 (1997-98)

This portrait is one of many that Peyton has made of painter David Hockney, to whose work many have compared her own. It shows Hockney looking towards the viewer as if cautious, seeking approval, against a generic landscape background.

In its innocence and candid nature, the portrait is akin to a snapshot one might take of a friend or family member. This presents an interesting contrast to the notion of celebrity as subject matter and responds to Peyton's friendly relationships with many of her famous sitters. The artist has confirmed, "There is no separation for me between people I know through their music or photos and someone I know personally. The way I perceive them is very similar, in that there's no difference between certain qualities that I find inspiring in them."

Reflecting this combination of familiarity and fascination, interpretations of David Hockney, Age 32 are varied. In the Sotheby's catalog note that accompanied the painting when it was sold in 2006, the work is compared to a devotional icon. Its glazed surface gives it a glowing appearance, which combined with its modest scale invites comparison with Renaissance miniatures. On the other hand, there is no acknowledgement in the portrait that Hockney is an internationally established artist. He appears approachable, even vulnerable, which perhaps speaks to the "democratization" that many see in Peyton's work.

Unexpectedly, given the portrait's impression of intimacy and spontaneity, Peyton made this painting of Hockney from a photograph. The two artists have never met (although they have exhibited together) and as such, the painting offers only the illusion of familiarity that is characteristic of media images of celebrities.

Furthermore, in 1997-98, Hockney was in his 60s, but Peyton depicted him at the more tender age of 32, her own age at the time it was painted. While journalist Carly Berwick suggests that Peyton is "measuring herself up" against Hockney, this could also be another expression of familiarity with the subject, albeit (as is typical of Peyton) at one remove.

Marc (April) (2003)

Marc (April) (2003)

The young Marc Jacobs, fashion designer and close friend of Peyton, is the subject of several drawings and paintings by the artist. This portrait is one of many that demonstrate the mutual admiration and affection between Peyton and her friends; Jacobs is Peyton's favorite designer, while her work features in his art collection. As is fitting for the subject, the drawing has much in common stylistically with fashion illustration. It has a sketched quality and the figure is slightly elongated and androgynous like many of the young models wearing Jacob's clothing in the pages of magazines.

Alternatively, art historian Nadia Tscherny cites the Romanticism of 18th and 19th century British portraiture (with its "combination of casual intimacy and refined beauty") as well as the later Aesthetic Movement, as possible influences. Peyton is interested in Oscar Wilde, whose sensitivity to youth and beauty, in particular his lover's "red-roseleaf lips," Tscherny suggests is behind works such as this one.

On the response to her chosen style, Peyton has remarked: "A lot of times people will say, 'These men don't look like that. There's no way they have red lips like that, and such skin.' But they do." She is unashamedly intrigued by physical beauty, and as such, some critics struggle with the relevance of her work in today's age.

In addition to its style, Marc (April) is typical of Peyton in that the sitter is not shown engaged in any activity or identified by their occupation. This perhaps reflects the artist's interest in the portrait sitting as an activity in itself. She has described this as: "time spent together that's not about socialising or eating or the normal activities people share." However the writer Alix Finkelstein notes that this lack of visual information beyond the figure itself is disappointing, claiming the result is that: "The images are no more than casual pictures of past good times."

It is likely that this is a sentiment that Peyton would agree with. She has claimed that her works are "pictures of people" as opposed to portraits and indeed reflect her feelings towards them at particular moments, in which they captured her interest. It is implied that these moments, like her subjects' physical beauty, are fleeting. As critic Roberta Smith writes, Peyton "turn[s her sitters] ... into beautiful young poets, flowers so fresh that their withering is poignantly tangible." This particularly comes across in a sketch like Marc (April), which may have been made rapidly.

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Content compiled and written by Dawn Kanter

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by , Kimberly Nichols

"Elizabeth Peyton Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Dawn Kanter
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 13 Aug 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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