David Hockney is one of the fore-most portrait painters among contemporary artists, yet his work and his approach to it depart from tradition in several important respects. The major and most provocative way is through the frankly homosexual subject matter of his work, which began to appear as early as 1960. Also, Hockney almost never accepts commissions, preferring to paint his friends and parents. Informal, witty, and occasionally even satirical, Hockney's portraits also evince an erotic fascination with certain sitters. Although Hockney produces a recognizable likeness in these portraits, his principal interests are formal even as he attempts to capture a subject's particular characteristics. Painting his friends for his own exclusive purposes allows Hockney to be unsparing in his analyses; he conveys a personal knowledge of his subjects' inner lives as well as their outward appearance.
Hockney's friend Divine was a transvestite entertainer who appeared in public as a large, tightly corseted, buxom woman. In the painting Divine, Hockney ignores his sitter's public persona in favor of a more informal depiction. He reveals another figure altogether: immobile, pensive, even sad. Divine's exaggerated makeup is the only trace of the actor's theatricality. By contrast, the red and blue stripes of his robe and the bright patterned wallpaper behind him create a riot of Matissean color that places his age and vulnerability in high relief.