Lesson: Elizabeth Peyton: Pictures of Rock Stars: The Imagined

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Art, History, and English
  • "Jarvis," 1996."Jarvis," 1996.
  • "Zoe's Kurt," 1995."Zoe's Kurt," 1995.
  • "Alizarin Kurt," 1995."Alizarin Kurt," 1995.
  • "Princess Kurt," 1995."Princess Kurt," 1995.
  • "Jarvis on a Bed," 1996."Jarvis on a Bed," 1996.
  • "Earl's Court," 1996."Earl's Court," 1996.


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 Alizarin Kurt, Princess Kurt, and Zoe’s Kurt

  • Examine these paintings.
  • What are the commonalities?
  • Describe the sitters’ physical characteristics.
  • There is a certain androgyny to Peyton’s portraits. What might be androgynous about these works?
  • Describe the paint quality. What effects does the loose dripping paint have on these portraits?
  • How does the artist use color? What effects do her broad brushstrokes have?
  • How does she create mood? What do you think she wants to memorialize about her sitters? How does Peyton romanticize these people? How does she capture a moment of self-reflection?
  • When we think of rock stars, what type of behavior do we associate with them? Do we admire them? What qualities? How does their work effect us, in our everyday lives?
  • In painting this particular group of portraits, what is Peyton’s perspective? (Fan, female fan, does it matter?) How do you think she feels about her subjects?

Kurt Cobain (1967-1994) was the lead singer/songwriter for the rock band Nirvana (1988-1994). These portraits of Cobain were inspired by multiple sources such as Cobain’s Saturday Night Live performance on January 11, 1992 and the documentary Nirvana: Live! Tonight! Sold Out!. Published in Index in 2000, Peyton stated, “When I was really young and just couldn’t relate at all, and I was reading nineteenth-century literature ‘that was my world. They were my best friends. And then, Kurt. That was the first time I ever painted an American from roughly my own time. It was such a revelation’ it’s here, that thing I’ve been loving” (July 2000, pp.54-61).

  • What do think Peyton means by stating, “They were my best friends. And then, Kurt. That was the first time I ever painted an American from roughly my own time”?
  • How do these portraits evoke a moment in time? What about their physicality speaks to a certain time/period? What other tangibles/concretes suggest a time/period?
  • How is Kurt a muse for Peyton? What about him do you think the artist is inspired by?
  • What is Peyton reacting to that is different from the previous work?

Look at John Lydon, Jarvis on a bed, Jarvis, and Earl’s Court

  • It has been said that Peyton paints her sitters with “love.” What about her paintings do you think connotes such feelings? How does the artist idealize her sitters?
  • In what ways are her subjects accessible? To whom?
  • What do their gaze, bodies in repose, say of their state of mind?
  • How does she create mood? What do the brushstrokes and colors have to do with how she depicts these sitters?
  • Who’s looking? Who’s being looked at?
  • Is it sexy, or sensual? How are these two concepts different?
  • How does color add to the feeling of sensuality?
  • Many of Peyton’s portraits are of private moments. Is there a feeling of glimpsing a moment that is private? Do we feel intrusive? What makes us believe that these moments are private?
  • How do these works fit into the idea of an imagined community?

John Lydon was the lead singer for the British band the Sex Pistols (1975-1979). In the artist’s words, “Around that time [early ‘90s] Gavin [Peyton’s gallery representation] showed me a book on the Sex Pistols, and I made a picture of Johnny Rotten [aka John Lydon] that I think is the first painting from that time” (Elizabeth Peyton. New York: Rizzoli, 2005. pp. 251-253). Jarvis Cocker is the lead vocalist and guitarist of the band Pulp, which was formed in 1978 and has been on hiatus since 2003. Jarvis was painted from a photograph published in the British magazine New Music Express in 1996. Brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher are part of the English band Oasis (1991-present). The band performed at the popular music venue Earl’s Court in 1995. Like many of Peyton’s portraits, the source is an image from New Music Express.

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

Index. July 2000, pp. 54-61.
Elizabeth Peyton. New York: Rizzoli, 2005. pp. 251-253.