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
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