"The Age of Innocence", 2007 © Elizabeth Peyton "The Age of Innocence", 2007 (Photo: Johansen Krause) / Courtesy The Brant Foundation, Greenwich, CT. USA Elizabeth Peyton. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

It is never quite clear how or why something beautiful succeeds, least of all is the artist himself, wrote Marcel Proust. In the last volume of the search for lost time , the narrator Marcel visits a party of the Guermantes family. How old the friends and acquaintances have become, it comes over him suddenly. How time digs into their faces, and they do not see it!

Similarly, Elizabeth Peyton describes her work and quotes Proust as referring to the beauty that manifests itself in brief, ever-passing moments. Peyton paints faces of famous people, less often she paints friends and acquaintances. She paints Napoleon, Curt Cobain, Lady Di, paints Leonardo DiCaprio, Oscar Wilde or Georgia O'Keefe. She paints faces from film scenes, paints opera and concert faces, thoughtfully, pensive, sullen. Sometimes she paints couples kissing - a particularly difficult subject for Peyton. How to capture the affection of two people without falling into kitsch?

Peyton paints people she feels close to, who she may even love, even though she does not necessarily know her personally. It is a love of the fragile and iridescent, then again some of their faces radiate auspiciously like Greek icons or even like the trimmed pictures of young stars on Bravo postcards: red lips, candy colors, youthfully beautiful.

In October, Peyton receives a major retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in London; at the same time, Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, a show dedicated to female artists in the context of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, opens there. Their women, or even women in the arts, were not just passively lying muses with lion's hair teeth, explains the curator, Jan Marsh. Both shows are juxtaposed, because, according to museum director Nicholas Cullinan, one must acknowledge the active artistic role of women.

Sure, these are well-intentioned and yet paternalistic statements, they can annoy one, and at the same time they make us yawn. After six decades of career and record Sotheby's prices, does Elizabeth Peyton still have to take her work to the art world as "active" and "feminine"? Do not your paintings have a different urgency?

Peyton's work is not neo-feminine nor an outgrowth of the #Metoo movement. Her portraits are painted with oil on wood, made as a monotype, etching or watercolor and are about the size of glossy magazine pages. In other words, they are small, and sometimes, according to the anecdote, people cry at the sight of them. Above all, Peyton's delicate, ephemeral strokes, like feathered feathers, make the idols in her pictures seem fragile and touching.

In addition, our time is extremely susceptible to the game with the face. It is our interface to the world and to success. And nothing surrounds us as much as faces. The fragile poses of self-confidence or fear, presumptuousness or subjugation that Peyton recognized decades ago in her models flicker us millions of times as a selfie, in social media, on touchscreens, on profile pages. We ourselves have become this pose. The cult around the face is no longer reserved only for stars and starlets, our face is all public, provided with the glimmer of the private.

Elizabeth Peyton, born in 1965 with only two fingers on her right hand, got her first solo show at the Althea Viafora Gallery in New York as a 22-year-old. By 1993, Peyton had tanned his brown hair platinum-blonde, followed the landmark exhibition at the Chelsea Hotel. Visitors could ask at the reception desk for the key to the showroom, which contained Peyton's pictures of historical figures, including charcoal drawings of Napoleon, still young and wild with long hair, and bohemian delicate depictions of Ludwig II of Bavaria. Of both men, the painter seems to be obsessed, she has tattooed the Napoleonic eagle and the crown of Louis II on the arms.

The painter Elizabeth Peyton, born 1965 © Roe Ethridge

You paint people who make things, because the more they kill, the more vulnerable they are, Peyton once said in an interview. And it is perhaps this sentence that has driven the reception of her work into almost compulsive Andy Warhol comparisons. The Tenor: Peyton re-individualizes the "I" by snatching the face of commodity culture, presenting it in its uniqueness solely by virtue of its technique - painting and monotype, not screenprinting as in Warhol - and not as subject-object to be consumed arbitrarily , Like Pop Art artists, Peyton often uses templates such as photos or magazine pages, but their people are not old and unapproachable, they sink into their inwardness, they are sensitive, sometimes grim-faced faces. For the American Vogue cover in July 2017, she painted Angela Merkel, with a warm look and enigmatically smiling.

However, Peyton is by no means the fragile "personal" that appears behind any "surface". Rather, charisma and extravagance are equally fragile, and they are inseparable from the person who embodies them. It is a game of merit, vanity and despair that unfolds in nineteenth-century literature, Flaubert, Balzac, Proust or Wilde, whose stories Peyton read as a child and adolescents. Then as now it is about the people of modernity, dandy and lonely, addicted and broken. And to look at this painter beautiful.

"Elizabeth Peyton: Aire and Angels" will be screened at the National Portrait Gallery in London from October 3, 2019 to January 5, 2020