- Elizabeth Peyton
- Arsenal (Prince Harry)
- signed, titled and dated December 1997 on the reverse
- oil on panel
- 28.8 by 36.8cm.
- 11 3/8 by 14 1/2 in.
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1998
Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst; Wolfsburg, Kunstmuseum, Elizabeth Peyton, 1998, no. 10
Hamburg, Deichtorhallen, Elizabeth Peyton, 2001-02, p. 60, illustrated in colour
Bordeaux, CAPC Musée d'art contemporain, Présumés Innocents, 2002, p. 85, illustrated in colour
Vienna, Kunsthalle and BA-CA Kunstforum, Superstars: From Warhol to Madonna, 2005-06, p. 311, illustrated in colour
London, Hayward Gallery; Turin, Castello di Rivoli, Museum of Contemporary Art, The Painting of Modern Life, 2007-08, p. 137, no. 79, illustrated in colour
Matthew Higgs, Elizabeth Peyton, New York 2005, p. 115, illustrated in colour
Exhibited extensively since it was painted in 1997, Arsenal (Prince Harry) is one of the most poignant and emotionally invested portraits in Elizabeth Peyton's oeuvre, which, together with the paintings of John Currin, has contributed in a significant way to the resurgence of figurative portrait painting at the dawn of the Twenty-first Century. Painted in the December of the year of Princess Diana's tragic death, it reveals the personal emotions of a very public figure, a young boy grappling with the loss of his mother under the intense scrutiny of the world's press. Like Andy Warhol's images of Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of JFK in The Week That Was, 1963, Peyton's painting takes as its point of departure an image in the public domain, a grainy photograph printed in the Daily Telegraph of the young prince surrounded by friends on the football terraces of Highbury. The source photograph captures Prince Harry in a moment of reflection, in which his expressionless face, staring into the middle distance, sets him apart from the crowd around him whose faces are animated by the sporting events on the pitch in front of them.
However, it is in her departure from the source image that Peyton's painterly practice begins. In contrast to Warhol's silkscreen process which replicates the impersonal mechanics of the printing press in such away that the viewer becomes desensitized to Jackie's personal tragedy, here Peyton's delicate, deceptively spontaneous brushstroke heightens the emotional intensity, bringing the viewer into communion with the subject. Although Peyton never met Prince Harry, her painting of him reverberates with all the emotional energy of a candid family snapshot. Her depiction bypasses the aura surrounding his fame and public life, tapping into his personal history in a portrait which is devoid of the voyeurism and the intrusive gaze of the media. Peyton herself has commented that what she is drawn to in her subjects is "that particular moment, when they're about to become what they'll become." (The artist cited in David Lock, 'Live Forever' in A&M, Issue 6, Summer 2009.) Arsenal (Prince Harry) narrates the watershed moment that a boy, more than a prince, is forced to grow up by great personal tragedy.
By taking her source photograph from the shared repertoire of our image-saturated culture, Peyton lends a certain familiarity and intimacy to the work which the viewer can share. Even if we do not recognise the specific source, we feel as though we do, as though this moment somehow shares in our own nostalgic personal histories, as though we are looking back at our own family photo album. As the artist explains: "There is no separation for me between people I know through their music or photos and someone I know personally. The way I perceive them is very similar, in that there's no difference between certain qualities that I find inspiring in them." (Elizabeth Peyton cited in Rizzoli, Ed., Elizabeth Peyton, New York 2005, p. 16). Prince Harry joins her highly personal pantheon of subjects which include Kurt Cobain, Liam Gallagher, Jarvis Cocker, friends from her bohemian art circle as well as literary and historical figures including Balzac and Ludwig II. Painting without hegemony both her close friends and figures in the public eye, there is a democratisation at play in Peyton's technique that recalls Warhol's program to rescue portraiture from its elitist past. Blurring the social boundaries, Peyton's oeuvre presents a parallel aristocracy equally worthy of depiction, which responds in an intensely personal way to individuals whose lives and actions she deems to be heroic, noble and inspirational.
As Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev says in her catalogue essay for the exhibition The Painting of Modern Life in 2007 at which the present work was exhibited, "She painted Prince Harry repeatedly in 1997, the year that Princess Diana died. The motherless prince typically appears alone, a little-boy-lost look in his eye. Even in a group, as in Arsenal (Prince Harry) – his face lit white beneath a football supporter's beanie hat and far more beautiful and feminine than in life – he seems miles away. What Peyton does here, and what she does best, is to record the transfiguring pressure of private life on public faces" (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, 'A Strange Alliance: The Painter and the Subject' in Exhibition Catlogue, London, Hayward Gallery, The Painting of Modern Life, p. 35).
Typically, Peyton prefers the intimate, off-duty moments where the true personality behind the mask might be glimpsed. Other paintings and drawings of the young prince include his first day at Eton, at Westminster Abbey and some double portraits with his older brother William. Yet none have quite the same emotional intensity of this work which, despite its modest scale and deceptively casual manner, draws the viewer like a magnet. Her brief, concise and efficacious brushstrokes imbue the photographic image with an emotional energy simultaneously recalling both Renaissance miniatures and Pre-Raphaelite romanticism. Deceptively loose and fluid, what is so stunning is the incandescent glow that results from the application of clear transparent glazes of intense colour applied over the smooth brilliant white gesso surface. This is most skilfully employed in the present work, so that when a light is shone on the painting it seems to the viewer that the light is coming from behind the painting, like a transparency held up to a light box or a stained glass window. When compared to the source image, it is clear how Peyton employs this device to shine a spotlight and draw our attention to the figure of Prince Harry, while the crowd surrounding him is pushed back by murkier hues and looser brushwork which mimic the effects of focus and depth of field in photography. This brilliant luminosity and translucency of hue transforms this small votive image into an intimate and personal icon which throws into relief the way in which Peyton has drawn upon the history of devotional portraiture in her treatment of her unambiguously modern subject matter.