Elizabeth Peyton’s Portraits (1991-)

The American artist Elizabeth Peyton (self-portrait, at left) is one of the most significant portrait painters at work today. First lauded by the art world in the mid-1990's she specializes in stylized portraits of close friends, celebrities and European royalty, a mix that initially seems strange. One of the most remarked-on characteristics of her work is that she copies portraits from photographs or from reproductions of earlier art. Matthew Higgs has noted too that many of her earliest portraits are related to the act of looking or being looked at.1  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Peyton, E.P Reading (Self-portrait), 2005

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Peyton herself considers her 1991 portrait of Napoleon to be the start of her career proper and, as she acknowledged in an interview, he was a man whose goals and ambition she identifies with.2 Her portrait of him, though, varies significantly from its source, a painting by Gros that Peyton must know includes Gros' own features.3 Feminized and thus more androgynous, Peyton's Napoleon faces the opposite direction, inverted as though in the mirror of her mind. He appears, like nearly all her subjects, boyish and on the threshold of greatness.

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Captions for image(s) above:

 

Peyton, Napoleon (1991)

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His face, though, is longer than the original, the hair less active, without lines by the side of the mouth and no five-o-clock shadow. Indeed he looks remarkably like the idealized and delicate face of Peyton's typical subject with their sharp features, long hair and, in paintings at least, bright red lips. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

 

Left: Gros, Napoleon at Arcole (detail inverted); Peyton, Napoleon (detail); Peyton, Jarvis on Bed (detail), 1996

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Identifying as well with a namesake, Peyton painted Queen Elizabeth II from a photograph taken when she was only a princess. Like Peyton's Napoleon Princess Elizabeth is on the verge of greatness, her destiny - in Peyton's mind at least - foretold.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Peyton, Princess Elizabeth, aged 16 (after a photograph by Cecil  Beaton), 1991

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Not surprisingly, the princess' features resemble those of Peyton's typical sitter. 

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Peyton, Princess Elizabeth, aged 16 (detail); Right: Peyton, Jarvis on Bed (detail inverted), 1996

 

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Peyton who must know art's underlying principle, that every painter paints himself, is secretive. She once turned up to explain her artwork to art students and said nothing. Yet we can still find meaning by comparing her images to those of the great masters. For instance, the range of people she portrays, though odd for a painter today, is in tune with earlier masters: royalty, creative celebrities and close friends. Even the eyes in her portrait of Napoleon betray an artist's mind. The far eye is clearly delineated, as in life, for exterior vision; the near one faint, drawn nearly to the point of being erased, perhaps even blind. The latter, as explained under the theme Insight-Outsight, symbolizes poetic insight. Thus Peyton's Napoleon, like those we have already shown by Ingres, David and Delaroche, is the artist herself....on the point of becoming immortal.

More Works by Peyton

Notes:

 

1. Matthew Higgs, "Introduction" in Elizabeth Peyton (New York: Rizzoli) 2006, p.12

2. Steve Lafreniere, "A Conversation with the Artist" in Elizabeth Peyton, op. cit., p.251

3. See Gros' Portrait of Napoleon.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 23 May 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.