Elizabeth Peyton on Historic Portraits

Currently featuring at the National Portrait Gallery and at Frieze Masters Talks, Elizabeth Peyton discusses her practice

Elizabeth Peyton, After Michelangelo, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels; © Elizabeth Peyton

My first show in London was in 1995 at the Prince Albert pub in Brixton. In some ways, the National Portrait Gallery is similar: less of a ‘capital-A’ art space, more a place for people that combines art with history, community and especially Britishness.

The idea for this show began as one contained in the normal exhibition space downstairs, but one day, the NPG Director said why not have the run of the museum, and show wherever you like in the historic galleries as well? At the Prince Albert there was a simplicity to the hang, simply replacing the pre-existing pictures in the pub, and this time it’s a similar idea: that it doesn’t take much to have my pictures and this location sit together. There’s a naturalness about it.

When it came to placing my work through the collection, I mostly followed my intuition. It seemed right to put some ecstatic, self-styled figures from the present time, next to the ecstatic realism of Tudor portraits. I find very exciting that without much explanation Alizerin Kurt (1995) and the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (c.1575) just hang very well together. Two people, a few hundred years apart, both interested in self creation, and using some of the same kinds of artice to reveal themselves. Putting Twilight (2009), a painting of the stars of that movie, into the Victorian rooms seemed right, since that was an era also focussed on romance and extreme repression. Also, having the clasped hands of the Brownings by Harriet Hosmer (1853) nearby heightens the idea in both works of eternal love — of love in the afterlife being more forever than here on earth. With the Van Dyck self-portrait, that was a painting I literally wanted to be close to.

I have a lot of influences from art and music history. I feel like I come from a family of artists— not just portraitists— and writers, who look at the face, making art with a kind of economy of expression. That family includes Balzac, Camille Claudel, Delacroix, Isa Genzken, Giorgione, Georgia O’Keefe, Proust,  Rodin, John Singer Sargent, Velasquez...

In real life one isn’t allowed to linger to look at someone for a long time, to direct the gaze wherever one feels. Most people don’t really notice what their best friends look like. If I’m making a painting after another artist’s, it’s often that there’s something I want to learn from the original work. But it’s also just to make it for myself. Sometimes making a painting after another picture is freeing; the composition is already made, so other things are allowed to happen. In an almost hypnotic way, I’m trying to let some harder-to-reach things inside of me come out. 

One can see in the older paintings at the NPG that the selfportrait was historically a very different kind of painting— number one, because it wasn’t a commission, so there wasn’t pressure to make things any other way than how the artist wanted. There are many selfportraits in the NPG collection where you can feel this freedom of not being literal, especially The Romney one that is unfinished (1874). For me, I approach my selfportraits quite the same way as my other paintings, though of course there is some different sense of discovery and revelation when it’s a picture of myself. 

In pictures, as in real life, people are containers of their time. Most of the portraits in the NPG were made of successful people. Heroes, artists, makers, transformers: people in power. The sitters perhaps did not realize, but as time passes one understands that all their choices — their gestures, clothing, etc.— show cultural values adhered to and rejected. They tell us everything about everything. 

Ultimately I have hoped that the inside is reflected on the outside. If I could steal one work from the NPG, it would be the painting of John Donne by Anonymous. There is a captured human beauty in it: humanity that I would like to always be near.

Elizabeth Peyton is an artist based in New York City, USA. ‘Elizabeth Peyton: Aire and Angels’ is on view at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from 3 October to 5 January 2020.

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