5 minutes with… Elizabeth Peyton’s (Dark) Harry

5 minutes with… Elizabeth Peyton’s (Dark) Harry

Leonie Grainger, head of the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Auction at Christie’s London, discusses an unusual work by the sought-after American portraitist

Born in Connecticut in 1965, Elizabeth Peyton graduated from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1987. She has since become recognised as a master of portraiture, with a signature style characterised by intimacy and innocence. 

Peyton is perhaps best known for her small-scale oil and watercolour likenesses of friends — often other artists — or superstar actors and musicians: famous subjects have included Queen Elizabeth II, Keith Richards, David Hockney, Kurt Cobain and Andy Warhol. 

Often working from press photographs or other mass-media sources, which can give her subjects a slightly idealised quality, the artist’s use of pre-existing images reflects her desire to explore celebrity, and the power of representation itself. It is, however, Peyton’s willingness to stick to a more traditional artistic practice, and her exceptional craftsmanship, that sets her apart. 

‘In contemporary art there’s a lot of competition to catch the eye,’ explains Christie’s specialist Leonie Grainger. ‘Elizabeth Peyton is not trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s actually quite remarkable that she’s never veered from portraiture, which is practically as old as painting itself, and is not the sexy or innovative thing to do. Instead, she is creating these little jewels. Contemporary art doesn’t have to be about doing performance art or installation or pushing boundaries all the time. You can stay within the traditional and produce art that feels completely new.’

Elizabeth Peyton (b. 1965), (Dark) Harry, 2002. Oil on board 36 x 28.2 cm.  Estimate £80,000–120,000. This work is offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Auction on 8 March at Christie’s London

Elizabeth Peyton (b. 1965), (Dark) Harry, 2002. Oil on board/ 36 x 28.2 cm.  Estimate: £80,000–120,000. This work is offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Auction on 8 March at Christie’s London

Peyton’s 2002 painting of her dog, (Dark) Harry, makes clear that the human form is not the only one she can commit to canvas with warmth and vitality. ‘There’s something quite endearing about it; there’s an immediate calmness,’ observes Grainger. ‘You can see how beautifully it is rendered, and the delicacy of the different tones.’ 

The work is just one standout of Next Chapter, the private Italian collection of contemporary art to be offered across Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art auctions in March. The meticulously-curated collection features painting, sculpture and photography by many of the most influential artists of the past 20 years, including Yoshitomo Nara, Wade Guyton, Anish Kapoor, Cindy Sherman, Marlene Dumas, George Condo, Yayoi Kusama, Nan Goldin and Kara Walker. 

Selected works from Next Chapter. From left Sue Williams (b. 1954), Codependence Day, 2000. Estimate £12,000-18,000. Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), Untitled #135, 1984. Estimate £80,000-120,000. Ghada Amer (b. 1963), Red & White Lovers, 2002. Estimate £30,000-40,000. Roni Horn (b. 1955), Key and Cue, No. 862 (Light is sufficient to itself), 1996. Estimate

Selected works from Next Chapter. From left: Sue Williams (b. 1954), Codependence Day, 2000. Estimate: £12,000-18,000. Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), Untitled #135, 1984. Estimate: £80,000-120,000. Ghada Amer (b. 1963), Red & White Lovers, 2002. Estimate: £30,000-40,000. Roni Horn (b. 1955), Key and Cue, No. 862 (Light is sufficient to itself), 1996. Estimate: £20,000-30,000. Ugo Rondinone (b. 1964), ELFTERJUNIZWEITAUSENDUNDNEUN, 2009. Estimate: £40,000-60,000. Mike Kelley (1954-2012), Island Potpourri Christmas Lingam and Yoni, 2002. Estimate: £12,000-18,000. These works are offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Auction on 8 March at Christie’s London

The broad diversity of work — particularly the strong focus on work by female artists and the wide range of price points — reflects the collectors’ deep appreciation for the most innovative strands in contemporary art, a strong commitment to connoisseurship, and a willingness to build slowly.

‘They have taken time over the years to meet with gallerists and artists, carefully deciding which piece to acquire from a particular artist,’ Grainger explains. ‘There’s nobody telling them what’s cool or what to buy. They haven’t always gone for the easiest artists; it’s about what struck a chord with them and piqued their curiosity.’ Peyton’s canine portrait, in fact, hung in their dining room, and ranked as one of their favourite pieces.

‘This is such a coherent collection and offers an amazing overview of the most important artists of the past 20 years,’ the specialist adds. ‘We are very excited about Next Chapter, and expect it to do very well at auction.’