Painted in 2013 specifically for The 11th Hour auction, this portrait of Leonardo DiCaprio, an internationally renowned American actor and film producer, is a prime example of the manifestation of Elizabeth Peyton's fascination with depicting artists in an intimate manner. As a painter who captures the zeitgeist of her era, and whose oeuvre is filled with figurative paintings of musicians, actors and artists, the intimate and personal rendering of DiCaprio is a perfect fit into the artist's cannon. Indeed, this painting is not the first time Peyton has used DiCaprio's fetching face as the subject and inspiration for one of her paintings; an earlier example is her 1998 color pencil on paper work entitled Leonardo di Caprio as Louis XIV. Born in Connecticut in 1965, Elizabeth Peyton has received high praise for her eclectic array of portraits of present-day celebrated figures. At a time when the contemporary art world deemed figurative painting archaic, Peyton's work filled a fresh and innovative niche through her particular brand of romanticized realism and the unironic treatment of her subjects. Peyton's loose rhythmic brushstrokes, sumptuous neutral palette, and transfixing glazes transform artistic personas into humanized individuals. In doing so, she is prized with shepherding in a new audience to contemporary art.
Elizabeth Peyton's work in portraiture is often associated with the king of Pop Art, Andy Warhol. Warhol's depictions of iconic images of contemporary celebrities undoubtedly paved the way for future artists like Peyton. In the same way that Warhol's paintings of Marilyn Monroe or Elvis were immediately recognizable to contemporary audiences, so too is this portrait of DiCaprio instantly identifiable to audiences today. However, unlike Warhol's obsession with a celebrity's public persona, Peyton is more interested in breaking down that faade and investigating the humanity of her subjects. With no visual depictions of Hollywood, which often accompanies luminaries such as DiCaprio, this painting evokes the intensity of a deep personal interaction. Effectively, Peyton paints a portrait of DiCaprio's distinguished face and imbues it with a palpable sense of his quiet repose beneath the veneer of stardom.
The present portrait is among the largest of Peyton's paintings; however, although larger in scale than her typical 11 by 14 inch works, this depiction of DiCaprio engages the viewer in a nearly voyeuristic private moment by dissolving the ontological impermeability of the painting's surface inherent in portraiture-thereby allowing DiCaprio and the viewer to inhabit the same close quarters. Utterly contemporary in subject and handling, yet a portrait which is inextricably linked to the art historical tradition of attempting to both depict a physical likeness as well as aspects about his or her personhood, DiCaprio's seated position and threequarter view pay homage to the classical cannon of portraiture. Yet, Peyton strips him of any identifying accoutrements of status, power or wealth that would have accompanied a classical society portrait. Indeed, he possesses a rare form of modesty for a man of his social stature.
The most striking feature of this painting is DiCaprio's face which has a distinctively expressive and painterly in comparison to the handling of his body and background which are roughly and minimally rendered. The careful representation of his face, with a rich chromatic range of warm tones is unique within Peyton's oeuvre in which faces are usually depicted monotone. The layered and energetic brushwork of his face nearly fades into abstraction. As Iwona Blazwick has astutely stated, "[a]lmost like calligraphy, her use of the line serves to structure space; it dances across the image to generate a vibrant surface dynamic; and it creates an iconography of the face" (I. Blazwick, Live Forever Elizabeth Peyton, exh. cat., New York, 2008, p. 233). The thick shadowed outline of his chin is masculine and rugged while the sweet depiction of his heart-shaped petal pink lips is delicate, feminine and romantic. Visually, the viewer's eye climbs up the zigzagged folds on his shirt upwards until it finally fixates on his ambiguous expression and locked, though averted and contemplative, gaze. Although DiCaprio's introspective gaze eludes the view, it simultaneously arrests our attention. Peyton's sensual palette and use of stark, flat space creates a fleeting vulnerability that intrigues and seduces. It is a portrait vibrating with psychological intrigue and physical beauty, both of the paint and of the sitter. She uses traditional methods and mediums such as oils on board, yet, she captures the spirit of her age as well as that of her subject. This contrast creates visual tension which captures the view's intrigue-it is utterly enchanting.