Lesson: Elizabeth Peyton: Pictures of Royalty: The Imagined

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Art, History, and English
  • "Marie Antoinette Between Germany and France on Her Way to be Married," 1995."Marie Antoinette Between Germany and France on Her Way to be Married," 1995.
  • "Princess Elizabeth's First Radio Address," 1993"Princess Elizabeth's First Radio Address," 1993
  • "Prince Harry's first day at Eton, September 1998," 1998."Prince Harry's first day at Eton, September 1998," 1998.


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

Open Discussion on Portraiture

  • What is a portrait? Who is involved?
  • What information can a portrait provide us (about the sitter/painter)?
  • What image can portraits convey? Status?
  • What are the purposes of a portrait? Memories?

General Questions about portraits

  • Where/what/who is the sitter looking (at)?
  • How would you describe the sitter’s expression?
  • How would you describe his/her pose?
  • Describe their clothing.
  • Describe the surrounding environment or lack there of.
  • Who do you think this was made for? What audience?

Listen to Princess Elizabeth’s first radio address

Look at Princess Elizabeth’s First Radio Address.

  • What is going on in this drawing? How old do you think the sitter is? What is she doing?
  • What can you tell about the interior?
  • How does the artist reduce the emphasis on space?
  • How does the artist use light in this drawing? Where do we see that?
  • Do you think the artist was in direct contact with Princess Elizabeth? How do you know this?
  • Why do you think an artist would make a portrait of someone that they have never met?
  • What might have inspired this work?

On October 13, 1940, Princess Elizabeth spoke to British children who had been evacuated abroad on life back in England. During the radio address, broadcast from somewhere in a Britain under siege, Princess Elizabeth, the fourteen-year-old heir apparent to the throne, demonstrated bravery and poise beyond her years. Princess Elizabeth, like many children, had been evacuated from London due to World War II, but she remained within the country unlike some other affluent English schoolchildren. Her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, were also resolved to share the danger with their subjects, and they stayed in bomb-damaged Buckingham Palace even as scores of Germans bombers descended on London nightly.

Look at Marie Antoinette Between Germany and France on Her Way to be Married and Prince Harry’s first day at Eton, September 1998.

  • Compare and contrast these images with the image of Princess Elizabeth.
  • How does the artist abstract space around her subjects? How does this affect the sitters?
  • How does the artist use the visual language of Abstract Expressionism in these works? To what effect?
  • How does the artist portray light in these works?
  • How does the artist use color? In what ways is it effective?
  • It has been stated that Peyton paints her subjects in their formative years. How does this relate to this image?
  • How old are the subjects in these works? Why do you think the artists choose to paint Princess Elizabeth, Marie Antoinette, and Prince Harry at such a young age?
  • What can you infer about their ages in relation to them symbolizing the future monarchy of a country? What about them makes them interesting as subjects?

Maria Antonia Josepha von Habsburg-Lothringen, known to history as Marie Antoinette, was born an Archduchess of Austria in 1755. Born the fifteenth child of the imperial family to Maria Theresa of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, Marie Antoinette’s initial role in the political arena of creating alliances through marriage was minuscule. However, when an outbreak of smallpox hit the family, Marie Antoinette became the only potential bride left in the family to create an alliance. As a result, Marie Antoinette was officially handed over to the French court on May 7, 1770, on an island on the Rhine River near Kehl. The then fourteen-year-old Austrian, Marie Antoinette was wed to the Dauphin of France, Louis Auguste, later crowned king Louis XVI of France. Mary Antoinette, Queen of France, is perhaps best remembered for her frivolous spending and her death: She was executed by guillotine for treason during the French Revolution in 1793.

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

Princess Elizabeth’s first radio address