Elizabeth Peyton

American Figurative painter

Born: 1965
Danbury, Connecticut, United States
I guess what I'm interested in is the quality of my subjects' being able to be themselves while occupying this extreme role in the public imagination. You can see their will, and that's incredibly beautiful.
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.


Progression of Art



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).

Charcoal on paper - Private Collection


David Hockney, Age 32

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.

Oil on board - Sadie Coles Gallery


Marc (April)

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.

Colored pencil on paper - MoMA


Pati and Flowers

Pati and Flowers is a portrait of the artist's now ex-girlfriend, curator Pati Hertling, alongside (and almost eclipsed by), a flower study.

It is the first painting of several that demonstrates Peyton's interest in combining the genres of portraiture and still life. These works bring the intimacy of portraiture to the more reserved discipline of still life painting. By giving context to the portrait, they situate Peyton's feelings towards her sitter in a time and place and reflect the importance she ascribes to their particular interactions. The artist has said, "A big element of the picture is that it's a record of two people being in one room together at one time."

What makes the piece modern is the way in which Peyton captures it almost as if a postcard to mail to friends of a particular, intimate moment in time. The approach is comparable to that of contemporary figurative painters Glenn Brown and Luc Tuymans, whose work demonstrates a critical awareness of the genre within which they are working, to the extent that they almost quote or parody it. It perhaps also speaks also to the idea of "democratization" that some critics see in Peyton's work. Just as the artist treats her royal and historic subjects as she does her modern celebrity sitters, Peyton combines the traditionally respected genre of portraiture with the less well-regarded still life.

Further, in this painting the flowers are foregrounded and painted in more detail than the portrait. As such, it anticipates the artist's Secret Life exhibition of 2012, in collaboration with Jonathan Horowitz. The exhibition used horticultural motifs to explore human sexuality, with Peyton's portrait/still life combinations showing plants foregrounding paintings of couples as if to censor them.

Oil on board - Private Collection


Louis XIV and his Courtiers 1673

This painting is one of two of Louis XIV that appeared in Peyton's 2016 exhibition, Speed Power Time Heart at the Gladstone Gallery. She has spoken of having been drawn to the King from a young age, in particular to his loneliness. This she perceived in spite of the trappings of royalty that include wearing fine clothes and being surrounded by courtiers.

The excess and showmanship for which Louis XIV, the Sun King, is known, invites comparison to the modern celebrity. There are parallels to be drawn with today's material and media culture, in which isolation is nevertheless a concern.

The painting is inspired by other depictions of Louis XIV, both historic paintings and contemporary reproductions including period drama. Peyton has, however, invented elements of the scene, in particular the characters that make up Louis XIV's entourage.

The literature that surrounded Speed Power Time Heart sheds light on Peyton's combination of source material and her interest in how portraits are made. Reflecting the artist's fascination with the particular interaction that is the portrait sitting, the press release for the exhibition included an extract from the Wikipedia entry on Bernini's Bust of Louis XIV, which describes his request for 20 sittings with the King in order to observe him engaged in such diverse activities as playing tennis and sleeping.

Peyton interprets this request as a desire to explore the sitter's subjectivity and has explained how it relates to her own practice, which in this case is not based on the life. She explains, "I did feel it was powerful, what [Bernini] said about needing to take the time to be around somebody." And of this painting: "It wasn't about copying Louis XIV, it was about feeling his being."

Louis XIV and his Courtiers 1673 thus represents Peyton's perception of the king, as shaped by others before her. Like her seminal portrait of Napoleon, it is a painting "after" another work, albeit in a more profound and less literal sense than a reproduction. The historic subject matter is of particular interest to Peyton, who has painted other rulers, in particular, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. She has said: "I really like how people contain their time, in their faces," suggesting she is very much conscious of how her portrait of Louis has been shaped by historic and modern contexts.

Oil on board - Gladstone Gallery



Unusual for Peyton's work, Angela (2017) was a commission. Vogue magazine asked the artist if she might paint the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, due to her unavailability to be photographed. Peyton made the painting from existing photographs of Merkel dating back to 2007.

The involvement of Vogue is fitting, on account of Peyton's interest in celebrity. Yet here she aimed for a more intimate portrait than might be expected of a celebrity media darlings that grace the glossy magazine. The artist wanted to communicate Merkel's compassion and humility and has said of her subject, "Her face is so determined and tender, there is this hopefulness that leadership could lead you to a better place."

In this way, Peyton appears less interested in Merkel's political power than her humanity, which she has described as the Chancellor's "greatest strength." The article that the painting accompanied highlighted the Chancellor's empathy and kindness towards refugees, in the face of whose plight "the world's most powerful woman did not look powerful at all" but rather "stricken."

Similarly, the painting appears more humble than the glossy photographs one might expect to see published in Vogue magazine - perhaps on account of its soft or unfinished appearance. The palette is relatively muted, the brushstrokes are sparse, and much of the surface looks as if it has hardly been touched. The most worked area of the portrait is around Merkel's eyes and face. This, along with the Chancellor's direct gaze, serves to draw the viewer's attention and bring about a sense of connection.

Furthermore, the single first name title of the portrait is in line with the accompanying article's argument that Merkel is no different from you or I - eschewing "the fanfare of high office." One caption read: "Angela Merkel: The Chancellor Next Door."

Oil on board - Collection unknown

Biography of Elizabeth Peyton


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."

Aside from drawing and painting, the young Peyton's passions included reading and listening to music. She was introduced to the British punk band The Clash by her older sister and Peyton recalls the reassurance that this music gave her. "Hearing those records, I felt like I wasn't such a freak, that there was a bigger world than Connecticut, where I was going crazy." Later, she would start her own band, which along with drawing and painting helped her interact with people "from a safe distance." Peyton was extremely shy.

These various creative activities came naturally to Peyton, who later remarked that she did not realize the extent of her passion for them at the time. "It was a surprise to me, actually, how determined I was," she said. "It seemed so normal." This possibly owes something to Peyton's upbringing. She has described her mother, a painter, and father, a writer (both also owners of a Connecticut candle-making business), as "kind of bohemian," such that an appropriate rebellion for her as a young teen was to entertain the thought of becoming a stockbroker rather than an artist.

Education and Early Training

At seventeen, Peyton moved to New York City to attend the School of Visual Arts (1983-87). By this time, her interest in making figurative paintings of particular personalities was well established, and often went hand in hand with her passion for reading. At college, for example, Peyton made drawings of Lucien de Rubempré from Balzac's Lost Illusions. She saw parallels between this book - in which de Rubempré, a writer from the countryside, finds his way in Parisian society - and her own position in the New York art world. In other drawings and paintings, Peyton combined portraits of her friends (painted from photographs) with those of characters from her books. Unfortunately for the artist, these didn't catch on. She has described her attempts to offer commissions while still at school as "a disaster."

Peyton struggled to establish herself as an artist after graduating in 1987 and has described these years as a difficult time in her life. "I was living with my ex-boyfriend in a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side... I'd lost my job [as an artist's assistant] ... I didn't have any money, and I was so ashamed of myself." Reading helped her to weather this difficult period and inspired her most pivotal portrait - the young Napoleon, drawn from the cover of a biography by Vincent Cronin. The artist has described how in reading the book, she understood the importance of individual people in the world. "It hit me that one person can totally change the world. I understood that was what I wanted to do, that this is why I would make portraits."

Her interest in portraiture came at a time of little enthusiasm for figurative art, at least within the art world, but she nevertheless identified the importance of portraiture in the "real world" in which people enjoy making and looking at images of themselves and each other. For Peyton, this was an opportunity to explore an undervalued area in art. While some contemporaries were "horrified" by her unfashionable interest (her paintings were supposedly not "cynical" enough and placed too much emphasis on visual pleasure), others recognized the populist appeal of her work.

Mature Period

In the early 1990s, Peyton met art dealer Gavin Brown, who championed the artist's popular appeal. She was drawn to his "brutish" character, which she felt would prevent her work from becoming too "sweet," and has spoken of their mutual respect and admiration. The two put on an exhibition in 1993, which included charcoal and ink drawings of Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, and Queen Elizabeth II. It was held in room 828 of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, to which viewers had to request the key at reception. Although fewer than fifty people saw the exhibition, it made the artist's name. The critic Jerry Saltz observed "you get lost in her work the way you do in a book" and praised the way in which Peyton captured "ephemeral historical moments." London gallerist Sadie Coles, who has represented Peyton in the UK since 1997, purchased the charcoal drawing of Napoleon. She described being drawn to the "romance" of the drawing and the "delight" in Peyton's work, in juxtaposition to the conceptual art that was most popular in the contemporary art scene of the time.

Peyton's next exhibition, also with Brown, took place two years later. It was based on pop and rock icons and featured several images of the recently deceased singer Kurt Cobain. The exhibition received mixed reviews that set the tone for a debate as to whether or not Peyton, with her populist portraits, could be considered a serious artist. For example Guardian critic Jon Savage observed "[Peyton's] work is reminiscent of those 1960s fan magazine competitions: young women around the world sending in their drawings of Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, John Lennon," though he also acknowledged it as an "often overlooked feminine response to pop." Similarly, Sarah Valdez wrote in Art in America, "It's at once silly and extremely clever for her to make work that hangs around like so many posters of celebrities on a pining teenager's bedroom wall."

A third pivotal exhibition, Projects 60, took place in 1997 at MoMA and featured Peyton's work alongside that of John Currin and Luc Tuymans. The literature surrounding this exhibition swung the debate, as it positioned Peyton as not just a traditional figurative painter and celebrity admirer, but an artist taking a critical view of and approach to contemporary portrait painting itself. As she became more established, many critics perceived a change in her style, with more confident line work and more of the canvas left blank (leaving behind the compulsion to fill the whole space). As well as paintings and drawings, Peyton began to make prints and to make use of new materials such as handmade papers and various colored inks. She has said of printmaking, "It's a very free medium. Like painting was when I started, when no one was looking."

Furthermore, while her subject matter remained figurative, Peyton began to move away from fictional and historical figures, in favor of her own contemporaries. These included her friends and partners such as Maurizio Cattelan, Jonathan Horowitz, Piotr Uklański, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Their images were reproduced in art and style magazines, where their "sharp-cheekboned, floppy-haired" aesthetic was in tune with the tastes of the time. Many of these contemporary subjects became famous in their own right - among them Rirkrit Tiravanija, an artist of interventions and happenings, whom Peyton married in 1991. The two were married for 15 years. She recalls, "He just smiled at me in a certain way, and I just thought, 'I'll marry you." Peyton has since been involved with men and women, including artists Klara Liden, Tony Just (to whom she was drawn, in part, on account of his looking like the youthful Napoleon), and curator Pati Hertling. She has spoken positively about marriage and commitment, in particular being able to join names with a partner and create a legal, historical record.

Current Work

Today Peyton's work is known internationally, and she is particularly popular in the United States and United Kingdom. In 2003, her first self-portrait was selected for inclusion in the prestigious Whitney Biennial (of the following year) and appeared on the exhibition poster, marking her as a contemporary painter of note. In 2006 she was named as one of the 100 Most Influential New Yorkers by New York magazine, on account of having "brought portraiture into the 21st century." Cementing her reputation, the first survey of her works at an American institution followed two years later with the New Museum exhibition Live Forever.

Although she is best known as a painter, Peyton is also a keen photographer. This medium allows her to produce more spontaneous images, which, according to author Richard Klein, "reveal a more informal side to Peyton's aesthetic, in which the intrinsic serendipities of photographic exposure and development are allowed full play." From an early age, the artist saw photography as "a way of being distant from people," but has now moved away from this period in which she would take photographs almost constantly.

Today, she works both from life and from photographs, though she has spoken of one particular advantage to the former as spending time with her subjects. "A big element of the picture is that it's a record of two people being in one room together at one time ... It's time spent together that's not about socializing or eating or the normal activities people share." As such, her portraits are not just likenesses but take into account her sitters' qualities and her own feelings towards them. She resists any description of her work as autobiographical, which for her is too "literal" an interpretation. Peyton sees painting as a transformative process more than a way of recording the presence of particular people in her life.

The artist's social life is nevertheless reflected in her work, inasmuch as her friends are often her subjects. She has close relationships with several artists and fashion designers, including Marc Jacobs and Dries Van Noten. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that some critics note the resemblance between Peyton's work with its elongated, androgynous figures and fashion illustration. Calvin Tomkins for The New Yorker, describes the artist herself as exuding style. "Peyton is slim, poised, and direct. Her clothes are understated but carefully chosen ... Her dark hair is cut very short, gamine style. She smiles often, and looks you right in the eye when she speaks." Her three tattoos include a drawing after Delacroix, a Napoleonic crest, and Ludwig II's crown.

Since 2007, Peyton has combined her portraiture with still life in works such as Pati and Flowers (2007), Justin Bieber and Grey Roses (2010), Flowers, Lichtenstein, Parsifal (2011), and Berlin, Hyacinth, and Black Teapot (2014). These paintings bring the intimacy of portraiture to the more reserved discipline of still life painting. They also more explicitly place the portrait in its context, situating Peyton's feelings towards her sitters in a time and place.

Peyton has also collaborated with fellow artists. In 2009 she worked with fine artist Matthew Barney on Blood of Two, a performance and exhibition based at a former slaughterhouse on the Greek island of Hydra. The work explored the rituals of the slaughterhouse and the customs of the island. She has also collaborated with multimedia artist Jonathan Horowitz on an exhibition about repression, Secret Life, which uses horticultural motifs to explore human sexuality. Peyton's portrait/still life combinations were particularly important to this exhibition, with plants foregrounding paintings of couples as if to censor them.

Since the late 2000s, Peyton has also ventured into cityscapes, exhibiting small paintings of New York City, including one of an intersection near her gym. "I got stuck on it," she explains, suggesting the same momentary fixation that the artist has to particular people. Art historian Nadia Tscherny has called cityscapes, like portraiture, a "critically neglected genre," with many critics excited about where this new exploration might lead. Nevertheless it is still largely portraits that captivate Peyton and for which she is known.

Today, the artist's working practice demonstrates a mixture of confidence and anxiety. She enjoys the thrill of working under pressure and will prepare for exhibitions at the last minute, stating that maintaining this momentum all the time would be "too much." To relieve stress, she runs and swims, whilst listening to her much-loved music. Like working under pressure, Peyton enjoys the element of chance that traveling has on her work, and although she is based in New York, moves around often.

In the same vein, the artist has described her pride at seeing her work in museums yet does not let herself become complacent. "After every picture I feel like it is all over. I cannot count on tomorrow," she has said. Her worst fear is to lose the passion and curiosity that drive her to make her art. To current students, she advises, "It's OK just to paint. Because 'just painting' is not nothing. It's huge and hard just to paint, just to be free."

The Legacy of Elizabeth Peyton

Peyton (alongside her contemporaries John Currin and Luc Tuymans) has been credited with the revival of figurative painting in the 1990s. When asked by arts writer Dodie Kazanjian what drew her to the genre, she responded, "I felt that you could see a person's time in their face - especially the particular moment when they're about to become what they'll become ... They just shine, and everybody around them can feel it."

She is inspired to portray her subjects out of a sense of admiration, fascination, and/or curiosity, but does not enjoy being called a painter of celebrities, claiming that her subjects' fame is incidental to their appeal. "People who are good at what they do often become well known, and I'm interested in making pictures of artists whose work inspires me." Nevertheless, many critics see themes of "idolatry" and "obsession" in her work. This and the connotation of celebrity have led some to compare her to Andy Warhol.

Another tendency among art historians and critics is to group Peyton with painters such as her contemporaries John Currin, Glenn Brown, and Luc Tuymans. The three are figurative painters whose work demonstrates a critical awareness (some suggest almost to the point of parody) of the genre within which they are working. Curator Laura Hoptman was behind the coming together of Currin, Tuymans, and Peyton in Projects 60 (MoMA, 1997) and acknowledges her own role in shaping a more conceptualist reading of Peyton's work, as well as championing its simplicity.

Critics of a conceptualist interpretation counter that Peyton's commitment to portraying the people she admires defies theorization. The artist herself refers to her work as "pictures of people" as opposed to portraits and has always considered herself a populist. Peyton's art dealer Gavin Brown has added, "She's doing something very simple in a very complicated age, and it can easily be misunderstood and trivialized." This balance of realism and conceptualism, popular culture and high art has, as critic Calvin Tomkins suggests, provoked viewers and critics to question our attitudes about art and art making.

As the artist's near-contemporary and fellow figurative painter Cecily Brown has acknowledged, Peyton (alongside Brown herself, Marlene Dumas, Jenny Saville, Cindy Sherman, and Lisa Yuskavage) is among "few women [artists] ... commanding high prices." Brown and Peyton, together with abstract artist Julie Mehretu, were described in the press as a "sisterhood of artists" when the three received awards at the New Museum in 2018 (and, on hearing the news of this honor, reportedly went out for lunch together).

Yet, the androgyny in Peyton's work, alongside her reluctance to theorize about it, perhaps contributes to a lack of feminist critique of the artist. Nadia Tscherny is one author to have explored this avenue, claiming that Peyton, alongside fellow painters Marlene Dumas and Catherine Opie, explores very current notions of identity, sexuality, and beauty through the female gaze. In spite of her interest in (androgynous) physical beauty, Peyton questions "the monolithic concept of the gaze as a sexist assertion of superiority and control."

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