Elizabeth Peyton paints both subjects and their souls, and in Count von Fersen, 1995, a subtle, graceful depiction of the 18th-century Swedish aristocrat is revealed. Dressed in lavender and enhaloed by a pellucid red, von Fersen is elegantly self-possessed as he stares wistfully ahead. Peyton’s characteristic painterly brushwork captures the count’s clothing, while his face is carefully and lovingly rendered in delicate detail. Von Fersen was a favourite at the court of Louis XVI, where he became a close friend and eventual lover of Marie Antoinette, herself a recurrent subject for the artist. Peyton’s initial fascination with 18th- and 19th-century French personalities came after she spent a summer reading Flaubert, Stendhal and Proust. Ultimately, these texts, characters and real-world counterparts inspired her now-legendary first solo presentation at New York’s iconic Chelsea Hotel. Held in 1993 in room 828, the exhibition showed drawings of Marie Antoinette, Napoleon and Queen Elizabeth, among others. These early works were characterised by a fey androgyny, what Roberta Smith referred to as ‘beautiful in a slightly awkward, self-effacing way’ (R. Smith, ‘ART REVIEW; Blood and Punk Royalty to Grunge Royalty’, New York Times, 24 March 1995).
Although only seen by around fifty people, the exhibition catapulted Peyton out of obscurity, and she was credited with reinvigorating figurative painting in the mid-1990s. Evincing a romantic visual idiom that gestures towards the 19th-century Aesthetic movement, these works collapse the divide between the public and private selves. By removing her subjects from a larger backdrop and context, these images are portraits of an idealised intimacy. Likeness is never the central concern for Peyton, and Count von Fersen represents but one truthful representation. Instead, as if divined, she is drawn to the faces she finds most compelling, be they friends, celebrities or historical figures: ‘Well, there’s no choosing. It’s just who I’m very interested in, and identify with, and see as very hopeful in the world’ (E. Peyton quoted in L. Hoptman, ‘Interview with Elizabeth Peyton’, Paper 5 (Fall/Winter 2008), p. 4). Indeed, Count von Fersen radiates an empathy born from seeing into someone’s psyche and understanding its nuances and depths. Crystalline and sensitive, Peyton’s portrait dazzles with sincerity.