Adventure with Elizabeth Peyton.

When taxi driver Elizabeth Peyton asks what she does, she answers, “I paint people.” 

But not every person. It must be people she feels a connection with – either by knowing the person personally or by reading a lot about them. In any case, admiration or fascination is at the root of it. The paintings of her first exhibition in 1993 in room 828 of the Chelsea Hotel in New York showed this. They included historical figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Princess Elisabeth of England, the King of Thailand and Emperor Ludwig II.


The American artist Elizabeth Peyton was born in Connecticut in 1965 and lives and works in the USA and Germany. 

Her current exhibition at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Salzburg (27 Jul 2018 – 25 Aug 2018) contains paintings that, with a few exceptions, show portraits and figurines in a uniform style, most of which were completed this year. The title of the exhibition – Eventyr – comes from the old Nordic word for fairy tale or adventure. Even if most subjects are only mentioned by their first names, it is often known which persons are depicted.

Ausstellung Elizabeth Peyton Salzburg - Raphael (Nick Reading), 2018 - oil on board, 48,3 x 35,8 cm 
Ausstellung Elizabeth Peyton Salzburg – Raphael (Nick Reading), 2018 – oil on board, 48,3 x 35,8 cm


The figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu is represented several times because Peyton was fascinated by his rigorous preparation for the Olympic Games, for which he also uses hypnosis and body visualization. Other celebrities she admires and paints are the Danish musician Elias Bender Rønnefeld from the punk rock band Iceage, his late compatriot and painter Jens Ferdinand Willumsen (1864-1916) and the pianist David Fray.

Exhibition Elizabeth Peyton Salzburg
Exhibition Elizabeth Peyton Salzburg – The Pianist David Fray, 2016 – 2018, Watercolor on paper, 41 x 30,8 cm

I am very inspired by people who are artists and musicians, people who touch me, people who help me to feel my feelings, who describe my feelings in some way if you know what I mean. (Interview with Paul Laster on Conceptual Fine Arts 2016)

One could have the impression that the selection of her motifs is based on marketing considerations and that she, therefore, likes to choose “celebrities” as a motif.

I don’t paint celebrities. But I take advantage of the fact that it’s easier to find pictures of people I know. Since my beginnings, this has become easier and easier through the Internet. But I’m not interested in commenting on celebrity culture. I mainly paint people who do something. (Interview with Silke Hohnmann in Monopol Magazine 2018). 

Exhibition Elizabeth Peyton Salzburg
Exhibition Elizabeth Peyton Salzburg – After Hammershøl (Jens Ferdinand Willumsen), 2018 – oil on board, 43,5 x 28,6 cm

Inspiration and Style

The titles of her paintings are often inspired by books, music and since 2011 also by operas, such as “Ariane on Naxos” and the film “Call me by your name”. 

Stylistically, the faces are usually very fine and detailed, while the bodies, clothing, and background are often painted only with coarse lines in the style of Expressionism. Although she mostly works with photos as models, her portraits are very intimate and reflect the inner states of the persons. In some cases, this process can take years. Peyton has been making prints and etchings of Elias for five years, but only now she has painted him. Through this time-consuming process, she gets much closer to the people and gets to know them on a deeper level.

When I paint people, I feel much closer to them. (Interview with Anne Katrin Fessler in 2018)

… then all five years of seeing and observing come into the painting. (Interview with Silke Hohnmann in Monopol Magazine 2018). 

The paintings in this exhibition tell the “adventures” of Elizabeth Payton with people who fascinate and touch her, but whether these “adventures” are more fairy tales or reality, nobody can say. 

Exhibition Elizabeth Peyton Salzburg
Exhibition Elizabeth Peyton Salzburg – Hanyu (Yuzuru Hanyu), 2018 – oil on board, 36 x 28,5 cm

Part of the series for the workshop “Art in the Blog