Elizabeth Peyton: Aire and Angels – a major exhibition of her portraits has opened at the National Portrait Gallery. Paintings made in the last ten years have been distributed amongst the permanent collection provoking interesting opportunities to compare and contrast.

I like the speedy look to Elizabeth Peyton‘s work.  Brisk brushstrokes of liquid oil paint are energetically dashed onto wooden boards which have been painstakingly prepped with sanded and polished layers of gesso.  The materials really suit her style for bold, sketchy drawing and, very often, whole areas of the surface are left plain.  Many of the paintings on show are very personal to her – a mix of portraits of friends, family and people and painters she admires. The use of photographs is very apparent; for example she made portraits of David Bowie in life and after he had died.


This show is entitled Aire and Angels in reference to a John Donne poem. When the exhibition was planned she chose, as her starting point, the portrait of the metaphysical poet circa 1595.  Apparently she liked the notional manipulation of his image, which encouraged the artist to produce a dark and brooding portrait of romantic young man full of sensuous thoughts and a mysterious mind.


Peyton likes the idea of the portrait artist as collaborator in promoting an image. She paints from life but, more frequently, it seems, uses stills from films, photographs and magazine images as her reference material.  And this can sometimes be problematic. What you see is a replica of a familiar scene from a film or an already famous image.  There’s an almost cartoonish feel to many of the pieces, as if somehow received, repeated, reformed.

However, it’s always a joy to tour the gallery and it’s certainly not difficult to spot the Peyton paintings inserted amongst the Tudor grandees or Victorian literary masters. It felt a little odd seeing celebrities such as Liam Gallagher, Jarvis Cocker and Keith Richards in amongst the regal portraits of kings, queens, lords and ladies.  I wasn’t always entirely sure of the thinking behind these placements.  But I do enjoy seeing a contemporary artist who has trumpeted the joy of paint throughout her career given such a prestigious platform.

Above: portrait of Angela, Self-portrait, portrait of Napoleon

The Show is on until 5th January 2020. FREE

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