Lesson: Elizabeth Peyton: Portraits: Androgyny in Contemporary Culture

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Visual Arts, English
  • "Susan Sontag (after H.C. Bresson's Susan Sontag, Paris, 1972)," 2006."Susan Sontag (after H.C. Bresson's Susan Sontag, Paris, 1972)," 2006.
  • "Live to Ride (E.P.)," 2003."Live to Ride (E.P.)," 2003.
  • "Jarvis," 1996."Jarvis," 1996.
  • "Alizarin Kurt," 1995."Alizarin Kurt," 1995.


Lesson by Avril Sergeon, Museum Educator
This lesson will extend over two class periods.
Part 1 will examine the notion of portraiture and its conventions, and will explore the Romantic movement and its relevance in discussing Elizabeth Peyton’s work. Part 2 will entail a group discussion and will follow the homework assignments and visual analysis of students’ work; if time allows, discuss Peyton’s work in relation to her fellow contemporary portraitists.


  • Students will examine the history of portraiture.
  • Students will explore Elizabeth Peyton’s particular approach to painting portraits.
  • Students will discuss the topic of inspiration.
  • Students will look to popular cultural icons and to their community of friends to develop a portfolio of portraits in their signature style.


A portrait is a representation of a person, especially his or her face, often made by drawing, painting, or photography.
Androgyny means not clearly male or female, exhibiting the appearance or attributes of both sexes.
Culture refers to the arts, customs, civilizations, and achievements of a particular time or people.
Contemporary references the current world or environment in which an individual lives.
Celebrity is a person famous or well known, usually for some sort of achievement.
Community is a body of people living in a specific location or having a common bond based on profession, interests, or ideology.
Figuration in art refers to a realistic representation of a person, object, or place, as opposed to abstract art without a recognizable subject.
Inspiration can refer to a person, idea, music, literature or anything else that stimulates the production of or creation of works of art.


Elizabeth Peyton’s images in the Digital Archives
Drawing pad
Masonite board
Colored pencils
Oil paints
Pastel pencils
Photographs, magazine images, Internet images
Celebrity interviews (verbal portraits)

Lesson Strategy

Introductory discussion on portraiture
Portraits can represent individuals in different ways. They can be literal representations or they can be symbolic. Historically, portraits were commissioned by the rich or powerful to commemorate individuals or groups. Some artists have been inspired by admiration or affection to memorialize certain people.

The conventions of portraiture focus on costume, pose, expression, gesture, and background. The intent is to capture the composed image and personality of a person. Most often, portraits present a person looking directly at the artist and, therefore, at the viewer. Note the well-known work Jacques-Louis David, John Singer Sargent, and Alice Neel.

We can ask ourselves if Elizabeth Peyton seeks to capture her subjects’ physical appearance realistically. Does she seek to investigate the person’s character, mood, and inner psyche? Or does she focus on presenting a neo-Romantic idealization of the sitter?

Discussion on Romanticism
Romanticism, as an aesthetic phenomenon, has influenced culture since the last decade of the eighteenth century through the early twentieth century. Romanticism, more than anything else, is the cult of the individual. The movement, and its resurgence as Neo-Romanticism in the work of Elizabeth Peyton, emphasizes the individual, the subjective, the immaterial, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental.

Among the characteristic attitudes of Romanticism were the following: a deepened appreciation of beauty; an emphasis of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect; a turning in upon the self and a heightened examination of human personality and its moods and mental potentialities; a preoccupation with the genius, the hero, and the exceptional figure in general, and a focus on his/her passions and inner struggles; a view of the artist as a creator whose spirit is more important than strict adherence to formal rules and tradition; and an emphasis on imagination as a gateway to transcendent experience and spiritual truth.

The interest in the individual and the subjective is mirrored in the Romantic and Neo-Romantic approach to portraiture. Traditionally, records of individual likenesses, in the hands of painters such as Peyton, portraits have become vehicles for expressing a range of psychological and emotional states.

Paintings for Discussion
Alizarin Kurt, 1995
Jarvis, 1996
Craig, 1997
Birthday, 20 December 1999, 2000
Nick (First Drawing), 2000
Live to Ride (E.P.), 2003
Marc, 2004
Pete (Pete Doherty), 2005
Susan Sontag (after Bresson, Paris, 1972), 2006
Pati, 2007

Let’s examine and reflect on these images, based on our discussion of portraiture and Romanticism.

  • These portraits are not commissions. What qualities, do you think, attracted Peyton to these subjects?
  • What are the gender and age of the subjects in the portraits?
  • Look at their clothing. Where does it situate them in our history? Are they dressed formally or informally?
  • Do the subjects engage you with their gaze? Where are they looking?
  • Peyton’s portraits have been described as transcendental, personal, and emotional. Comment on these descriptions.
  • What can we say about the beauty of the subjects and the appearance of the finished portrait?
  • Comment on the sitters’ poses, expressions, and moods. Do we get a sense of their passions and inner struggles?
  • Do you feel a connection with the people in the paintings or drawings? Do they convey a sense of heroism, genius, or exceptional qualities?
  • Do the subjects strike you as lost in introspection?
  • Do these figures appear androgynous? Based on our definition of androgyny, what makes you agree or disagree?
  • What do the paintings have in common? How do they differ?

Summary and Context
When asked about her paintings’ subjects, Elizabeth Peyton has said, “It’s just who I’m very interested in, and identify with, and see as very hopeful in the world…I see them as very great role models, and heroic in that they can go through their own daily lives, and manage to create something and transcend what they come from.” Peyton’s motivation is populist in nature. She wants to portray contemporary society and make her work accessible to a wide audience that might be at a remove from the worlds her subjects inhabit. Despite her subjects’ current claim to success and recognition, Peyton has often painted these people at formative stages in their lives. She has recognized in them a potential for the poetic, the visionary, the beautiful, and the transcendental.


  • Given our understanding of Romanticism, and our discussion of the portraits, write a paragraph about Elizabeth Peyton’s painterly approach and style.
  • Choose one painting and create a narrative.
  • Based on the materials list, create a portrait for your portfolio. Use the medium with which you are most comfortable. Describe your sources of inspiration.

Class discussion following homework assignment

  • How has your introduction to Elizabeth Peyton’s oeuvre changed or expanded your notion of portraiture?
  • Do you find her style appealing?
  • Has her style of drawing and painting influenced your portfolio work? Are you more confident of your individual style?
  • Why do you think her portraits are well liked or popular?
  • What do you conclude about the perspective from which she approaches her subjects? Does this apply also to her self-portrait?


  • Evaluate students’ understanding of new vocabulary.
  • Determine students’ understanding of the conventions of portraiture and any departure from these by Elizabeth Peyton.
  • Evaluate student participation in class discussions.
  • Grade completed homework assignments.
  • Comment on the individual style or mark displayed in the students’ art.

Extending the Lesson

Contemporary American figurative painters

John Currin (born 1962) is an American figurative painter with a satirical edge. He is inspired by influences as diverse as the Renaissance and popular culture magazine photographs.

Lisa Yuskavage (born 1962) is a contemporary American figurative painter. She is influenced by the sexualization of the female nude in popular culture.

Kehinde Wiley (born1977) is inspired by the paintings of Renaissance masters and hip-hop culture and makes portraits of contemporary urban African-American men.

Barkley L. Hendricks discusses “Birth of the Cool,” his retrospective exhibition at Duke University’s Nasher Museum.

Additional Resources

Elizabeth Peyton, Rizzoli, 2005
Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton, Phaidon, 2008
New Museum
Encyclopedia Britannica