Realised in the artist’s signature intimate scale, Prince William at the Queen Mother’s Bday is a jewel-like portrait that captures a private moment of introspection within a highly public setting. With delicate, swift brush strokes Peyton exposes the youth and vulnerability of the young Prince caught in the public eye. Although surrounded by people, the tightly cropped composition and the impassive direction of the prince’s gaze away from his audience creates a reflective atmosphere that inhibits personal intrusion. Peyton’s sensual palette and use of stark, fat space creates a fleeting vulnerability that intrigues and seduces. With characteristic fine painterly skill Peyton evokes with candour her subject’s expression, his teenage self-consciousness captured by the chromatic sensitivity with which he is painted: strikingly framed by the black door behind him, the Prince’s pale skin, rose-hued cheeks and crimson lips are redolent of the enchanted features of a fairy-tale prince. Playing on contemporary society’s insatiable curiosity about celebrities’ personal lives, her empathetic portraits capture moments of human fragility. Drawn from the kind of paparazzi photograph that has defined the lives of the British Royal family throughout the twenty- and twenty-first centuries, in this intimate, close up painting Peyton presents us with an almost voyeuristic view of her subject; transposed from a media image, the Prince nevertheless seems caught off guard. 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 romanticised realism and the unironic treatment of her subjects. A subject that continues to intrigue her, Peyton has created images of royalty throughout her career, both historical and current, such as Louis XIV, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Harry, with portraits from this series in major public collections including Prince Harry and Prince William, 1999 (Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris), and Prince Harry in Westminster Abbey, London, November 1997, 1998 (Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg).
The compassion with which Prince William at the Queen Mother’s Bday is painted reflects Peyton’s respect for all her subjects, who vary from close friends to public figureheads. Often drawn from media sources, Peyton chooses her subjects with great care, only selecting those she admires or feels an affnity with. There is an inherent sense of narrative present in these works, pulsating with nostalgia, imbued with romance and sometimes wrought with angst. ‘There is no separation for me between people I know through their music or photos and someone I know personally,’ Peyton has said. ‘The way I perceive them is very similar, in that there’s no difference between certain qualities that I find inspiring in them’ (E. Peyton, quoted in Elizabeth Peyton, exh. cat., Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Hamburg, 2001, p. 18). Peyton’s devotional portraits, with their visual lexicon of highly-coloured features, intimate composition and diminutive scale, are reminiscent of Byzantine icon paintings, commenting on the present-day hero worship of celebrity in our image-drenched culture. Inspired by the studio portraiture of Nadar, Alfred Stieglitz and Robert Mapplethorpe, who all photographed their friends and intimates, and frequently compared to Andy Warhol, Peyton’s representations of iconic images of contemporary celebrities pay tribute to the way in which portraiture can celebrate a person. As she has said, ‘That’s what it’s all about – making art is making something live forever. Human beings especially - we can’t hold on to them in any way. Painting and art is a way of holding onto things and making things go on through time’ (E. Peyton, quoted in J. Cocker, ‘Elizabeth Peyton’ in http://www. interviewmagazine.com/art/elizabeth-peyton/, [accessed 3 January 2015]).