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Peter Doig - Biography and Legacy

Scottish Painter

Movement: Magic Realism

Born: April 17, 1959 - Edinburgh, Scotland

Peter Doig Timeline

"I'm an outsider. I've always been an outsider. Even in London. If I returned to Scotland, I'd feel a complete foreigner."

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Biography of Peter Doig


Peter Doig was born in Edinburgh in 1959 to Mary and David Doig. At the age of two, his family moved to Trinidad where his siblings Andrew and Sophie were born. When he was seven, the family moved to Montreal, Canada, due to his father's job as a shipping merchant. He was sent to a Scottish boarding school from the age of 12 thanks to money left by a great-aunt, but after three years of unhappiness, his parents let him come home. His mother had been worried he'd be expelled; he was "an adventurous, free spirit" in her words. The family moved to Toronto where Doig struggled at school. He was not an academic child and preferred to spend time with friends, listening to music, smoking weed or taking LSD.

This transitory childhood robbed him of a sense of belonging, which lasted throughout adulthood. He never lived in a house for more than three months at a time. He said: "That's all I knew and that's why I don't really belong anywhere. Then again, I do feel Scottish in some way. Maybe it's to do with visiting my grandparents there every summer as a child, but I am aware of my Scottish ancestry. It's there all right, but it would be pushing it to label me a Scottish painter. Or, indeed, an anywhere painter."

Early Years and Training

By the age of 17 Doig had dropped out of school to take up various jobs. It was not until he found himself lonely and bored working as a laborer on a gas drilling rig that Doig picked up a sketchbook for the first time. He had no real 'natural' drawing skill, but his father had been an amateur artist and his great-aunt a professional, so he decided on painting as a career, despite the fact that he was poor at drawing. In 1979, he took himself off to London to go to art school. He enrolled on a foundation course at Wimbledon College, where he met Bonnie Kennedy, who was to become his wife. The following year he enrolled at St Martin's, but he was held back by his lack of skill as a draughtsman. He recounted how one of his teachers held up a life drawing of Doig's, declaring it the worst he had ever seen. He learned to get round it through taking photographs, and projecting them onto canvas to paint on top.

He lived in King's Cross, which he described at the time as "a mad, rough place, full of oddballs and artists". Doig felt comfortable in the local scene and started hanging around with musicians and fashion designers. At college, he said, he "found his voice", despite being intimidated by his peers and the "general air of cool that hung over the place". He began his artistic career painting urban scenes, which he said were "less about making paintings and more about making images".

After he graduated, he moved back to Montreal where his wife, Bonnie Kennedy, had been offered a job at the fashion firm Le Ch√Ęteau. They got married in 1987, and Doig worked designing film sets, but felt cut off from the community in London. He returned at the age of 31 to enroll on an MA course at Chelsea School of Art where he found an industry going through a huge change as the Young British Artists stormed onto the scene. It was here that he met lifelong friend Chris Ofili, who would go on to become the first black winner of the prestigious Turner Prize. They bonded through their love of painting, Trinidad, and music, and have been close friends ever since.

It was around this time that Doig realized he was doing something quite different from his peers. With the exception of Ofili and Jenny Saville, most of his contemporaries thought that painting was obsolete. Doig said: "I was out on a limb. My work looked very different to everything else on show and, not just that, but some of the artists did not want to show their work in the same space as me. They obviously thought my paintings were some sort of dreadful throwback or somehow not serious enough or absolute kitsch."

His work remained unpopular for a few years but in 1990 his career began to turn around when he won the Whitechapel Artist Prize and three years later the John Moores Painting Prize.

In 1992 the couple's first child, Celeste, was born, then Simone was born two years later. Doig was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1994.

Mature Period

In 2002 the Doig family - now comprising two more daughters, Eva and Alice - settled in Trinidad, inviting comparisons to painter Paul Gauguin, who moved from France to Tahiti. They had their son, August, there, and three years later Ofili moved to the island to join them.

By 2007 Doig had become Europe's most valuable living painter when his painting White Canoe (1990-91) sold at auction for a record-breaking $7.5 million. He held this record until Lucien Freud's Big Sue was sold to the London-based Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich, for $33.6 million the year before Freud's death in 2011. Although the $7.5 million sale catapulted Doig into celebrity status, the sale troubled him. It was, Doig believed, a symptom of an art market gone mad. "I was absolutely shocked that someone would pay so much," he said, "but I was also struck by the pressure it put me under. To go into a studio and think you're going to make a painting that's going to make a million dollars or a hundred thousand."

Doig has dealt with personal difficulties in the past decade. In 2012 his 24-year marriage to Bonnie Kennedy ended. His father - to whom he was very close - died, and Doig was taken to court over a painting that had been falsely attributed to him - a complicated and protracted lawsuit that kept him out of the studio for months at a time. He had to prove in court that he was not the artist behind a bizarre desert landscape signed "1976 Pete Doige". The case took four years to conclude, and his whole family became involved before it was found that Doig had nothing to do with the work.

In 2015 he had another daughter, Echo, with curator Parinaz Mogadassi. He now lives in Trinidad where he leads a simple, healthy life. He spends his time working alone in the studio and to relax he kayaks, swims, plays ice hockey, and skis. He has set up a film club, along with Ofili, which meets in a large room next to his studio every Thursday night where he and friends drink beer, watch arthouse movies and talk about what they have seen.

The Legacy of Peter Doig

Defiant in the face of conceptualist, multimedia, deskilling practices, Doig's paintings use specific, autobiographical moments to connect with universal emotions in a mystical and intangible way. Unlike his YBA contemporaries, such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, Doig specifically worked to make his work appear handmade, creating a space for the artist's traditional skills to flourish in British contemporary art of the time and beyond.

Curator Keith Hartley said that Doig's work speaks to the question of whether painting still matters. Doig has answered it, Hartley said, by "looking back and realizing that there is a lot to be retrieved from the history of painting that can inform painting today. He has an extraordinary visual memory which coalesces with his personal memories when he paints. So, an incident that he witnessed can be transformed by the interaction of all these elements into a painting that possesses an extraordinary resonance." Doig's prolific painting career has ensured that questions of color, composition, and evocative figuration remain central to the work of young contemporary artists, especially painters.

Most Important Art

Peter Doig Famous Art

Milky Way (1989-90)

In this mesmerizing canvas, pinpoint stars share a black and blue skyscape featuring a cloudy Milky Way. From the horizon a stretch of trees grows, glowing alien and coral-like, waving into the air as if in water. They are reflected beneath on a still black lake in which floats a lone girl in a canoe, her tiny body enhancing the painting's sense of scale.

The dreamlike work references Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night, produced a century before as an hallucinogenic, emotive, portrayal of van Gogh's view from the window of his room at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole lunatic asylum. The piece also references a number of 21st Century elements, with its echoes of current literature and film combined with the artist's own experience and imagination, as is his signature style. Doig said: "The tree line is a mixture of what I could see from my working space in my parent's barn and other sketches I made of northern-looking pines and dying trees. The idea was the trees were illuminated by city light or artificial light from afar - I had just read Don Delillo's White Noise (1985) that influenced the light in these paintings as well." The girl slumped in the canoe references the final scene of Sean S. Cunningham's 1980 horror movie Friday the 13th in which an exhausted young female protagonist boards and then falls asleep in a canoe on an otherwise huge empty lake. The eery canoe in this would mark the entrance of a motif that would appear again and again throughout his work.

This mode of combining reality, memories, fictions, and images from film and photography became Doig's trademark style and marks a bold integration of postmodern pastiche and collage sensibilities with traditional painting and historical reference points.
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Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 29 Aug 2018. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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