Lesson: Elizabeth Peyton: Artist's Community: The Real

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Art, History, and English
  • "Ben Drawing," 2001."Ben Drawing," 2001.
  • "September (Ben)," 2001."September (Ben)," 2001.
  • "Piotr on Couch," 1996."Piotr on Couch," 1996.
  • "Haircut (Ben and Spencer)," 2002."Haircut (Ben and Spencer)," 2002.


written by Cathleen Lewis, High School Program Manager.

Elizabeth Peyton emerged in the early 1990s as a portraitist. Throughout her career Peyton has found inspiration for her imagined and real communities through research and personal observations. Her early works of rock stars and royalty (imagined community) were inspired by nineteenth-century literature, rock music magazines, and archived photographs. Peyton’s later works rely on people bound together by their interests, such as fellow artists and friends (real community), for which she used photographs, studies, and sittings in her studio as references in order to complete. Often described as beautiful and seductive, Peyton’s works often celebrate the aesthetics of youth, fame, and beauty. Painted with bold, bright colors in a graphic style, Peyton’s ouevre brings forth questions of subjectivity: What is “real” and what is “imagined”? What is beauty? What is this artist’s mark?


  • Students will be introduced to the work of Elizabeth Peyton.
  • Students will determine what makes Peyton’s portraits contemporary.
  • Students will examine the source materials artists’ use for inspiration.
  • Students will create a work of their own real and imagined community.


Abstraction is an artistic language that frees itself from subject matter to concentrate instead on content; that content is an essential expression of an idea or feeling, rather than a representation of an object from the real world.
Androgyny is a term used to discuss traits that either have no gender value, or have some aspects or stereotypes attributed to the opposite gender in terms of the binaries of masculine and feminine.
Beauty is a contested term relating to the pleasing quality associated with harmony of form or color, excellence of craftsmanship, truthfulness, originality, or another, often unspecified, quality.
Figuration includes both representations of the human figure, and art that portrays, in however altered or distorted form, things perceived in the visual world.
Gaze is a concept relating to the optical, including consideration of spectatorship, voyeurism, and gender, which implies that the act of looking and being looked at are part of the subject of a work of art.
Muse refers to a source of inspiration. From the old French muser, which means “to meditate, waste time.”
Popular culture is a general term used to describe contemporary life and items that are well known and generally accepted; widespread cultural patterns within a population.
Romanticism is a complex artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the eighteenth century. The movement was both a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature.
Visual pleasure refers to the emotions, reactions, and desires people have when someone is presented with something that can be seen or looked at.


Elizabeth Peyton’s images in the Digital Archives

Lesson Strategy

Look at September Ben, Piotr on Couch, Ben Drawing, and Haircut (Ben and Spencer).

  • How does Peyton use line in the portrait of Piotr? To what effect does the combination of green, purple and red have in the portrait? How does Peyton usage of broad brushstrokes determine movement and direction?
  • Who are the subjects of these works?
  • Picasso said a portrait is a subjective document: a viewer recognizes the artist first, the sitter second (if at all). [1] Is this true? Do you recognize the sitter in any of Peyton’s work? Is this recognition important? Why or why not?
  • Would Peyton have direct contact with these individuals?
  • In Ben drawing how does the direction of line move the viewer’s eye around the painting?
  • When looking at the portrait of September Ben, can you determine from the painting where Ben is located? How do you know? What is the visual evidence?
  • How are the colors different in Ben Drawing from the paintings just discussed? How does this change the mood of the work?
  • What is the direction of the gaze of all the sitters? Do these moments feel like private moments? Describe the situations.
  • How does Peyton evoke notions of Romanticism in her sitters?
  • What do you think her sources for these works were?

The 1996 portrait of the then-unknown Polish artist Piotr Uklanski is one of Peyton’s first portraits exhibited that depicted a close friend and contemporary, rather than a historical luminary or a pop icon. By 1996, Peyton was concentrating on portraits of artist friends, gallerists, lovers, family members, and even her pets. Although she’s known for painting portraits of the famous, the majority of Elizabeth’s work center around a small community of artists, musicians, designers, writers, and dancers living in New York, Berlin, and London, starting in the late 1990s.

Look at Live to Ride (EP).

  • How does androgyny play out in this work?
  • Is there truthfulness in the work? How would you explain this?
  • What is the direction of Elizabeth’s gaze in this self-portrait? How is it different from her other portraits of friends or celebrities?
  • How is this self-portrait like her other portraits of her communities, real or imagined?
  • How do Peyton’s portraits blur the lines between the imaginary and real community?
  • How are Peyton’s portraits a declaration of her time?
  • How would you portray a declaration of your time?
  • Describe how Peyton realizes visual pleasure in her pictures of people.
  • Do you think Peyton is a populist painter? What makes you say this?

Elizabeth Peyton paints a very specific kind of person; she paints people that she finds of interest, that she identifies with, and she sees as hopeful. Peyton sees her sitters as heroic role models. Through everyday life’s ups and downs, she can continue to create something magical by making paintings that are popular and for everyone.

Students will explore their own “real” and the “imagined” communities.

Students should choose images from magazines and newspapers of celebrity culture like Vibe, Interview, Rolling Stone, People Magizine, etc. (Imagined)

Students should photograph their contemporaries as source material or ask friends to sit for them (real)

  • What do they find compelling about their contemporaries that they would want to document?
  • How would they evoke the lives of their sitters, providing a glimpse of self-reflection?

Make a body of work of the real or imagined communities of their world using their own mark in a material of their choosing. Suggestions: oil, watercolor, printmaking

Extending the Lesson

Have the students research the following women: Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Susan Sontag

Look at Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Susan Sontag.

  • What are the similarities of these portraits?
  • Compare and contrast this group of portraits with the previous portraits discussed.
  • Why do you think Peyton would choose these women as her subjects?

Other artists to consider:

Barkley L. Hendricks
Kehinde Wiley
Karen Kilimnik
Alex Katz
David Hockney
John Currin
Richard Prince

Additional Resources

[1] Calvin Tomkins, The Artist of the Portrait, The New Yorker
Live Forever Elizabeth Peyton ; Fin de Siècle, Laura Hoptman; Excessive Life by Iwona Blazwick