Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret on Their Way to Westminster Abbey is an early work by Elizabeth Peyton, created on the cusp of her breakthrough to international art stardom. Painted in 1994, it exhibits the artist's fascination with depicting larger-than-life public figures in an intimate and incandescently beautiful way. Peyton's eclectic portraiture of famous figures, including rock stars, royalty and male beauties, is largely drawn from photographs. Like the portraits of Andy Warhol, they are obsessed with star quality, though Peyton's subjects arguably possess a much greater personal significance to the artist. Her selective canon of celebrities is treated to a signature soft touch of pellucid oils that are allowed to drip and flow freely as she swiftly defines their forms. This feminine and romantic vision of the world created a new audience for portraiture in the 1990's. At a time when figurative painting was considered passé, Peyton's particular brand of delicate, idealized realism and the unironic treatment of her subjects was radically bold.
The present work represents the artist's commitment to painting, following her first solo show in 1993 in which she exhibited drawings of historic figures at the Chelsea Hotel. The composition is borrowed from a candid street shot of Princess Elizabeth at age thirteen, her sister Princess Margaret, and their governess, Marion Crawford, on May 15, 1939. The source image is an early example of the kind of paparazzi photography that has defined and plagued the lives of the British royal family ever since. In this painting, Peyton has cropped into the image and eliminated details like the princesses berets and surrounding architectural features to create a unified composition. She has also rendered the black and white photo in color, lending a jewel-like red to the girls' dress coats and capturing the rain-soaked London street in a wash of translucent grey pigment.
The original snap was taken on a jolly spring day in which the princesses took their first ride on the Underground, while their parents, the newly crowned King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were embarking on a tour of Canada. A mere five months later Britain declared war on Germany and the family became rallying figures for the nation. Peyton possesses decidedly anglophile leanings and she was clearly fascinated by this period of the future Queen's life. She has depicted the unexpected heir to the throne at various stages of her adolescence, including drawings of the young princess with her father; posing for Cecil Beaton at age 16; and as she gave her first radio address in 1940. "The royals can be idiots," Peyton has proclaimed, "But in particular, Elizabeth rose to the occasion of her life" (E. Peyton, quoted in R. Pruitt and S. Lafreniere, "Elizabeth Peyton," Index, July 2000).