The Problem With Portraits

by by Grier Stockman

Last month, the British National Gallery opened an hour early so that Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton) could enjoy a ten-minute private viewing of the Duchess’s first official portrait. According to The Telegraph, Prince William was distracted by photographs of himself hanging in an adjacent room and delayed viewing. United before the Duchess’s portrait, the royal couple thoroughly praised its trembling creator, Paul Emsley, for his “beautiful” work. The Duchess described it as “just amazing” and “brilliant,” later celebrating her portrait’s unveiling with her family over a private breakfast reception at the museum.

Minutes later, when the portrait was officially unveiled to the public, the response was so poor and the criticism so withering that artist Paul Emsley said he felt like the target of a witch-hunt. “Dour,” “rotten,” and “savage” were some of the more acidic proverbial tomatoes flung at Emsley. “It really wasn’t pleasant and I stopped reading what had been written,” he said in an interview with British tabloid magazine Hello! “I have coped with the criticism by going back to the studio and getting on with it.”

Kate Middleton hoped the portrait would reflect her “natural self, as opposed to her official self” according to Emsley. But critics claim she looks old and sallow. Emsley is known for several impressive artistic feats, though none more foretelling than his photo-realistic rendering of an Indian rhinoceros, complete with cracks, bags, and wrinkles of gray flesh, which he created for an exhibition at the Red Fern Gallery in London. His portrait of Middleton is similarly intimate. Indeed, the immense 45x37 inch canvas is so embarrassingly detailed, one can almost picture the chemical formation of triglycerides beneath her ladyship’s fine cheeks.  The Guardian’s chief arts writer, Charlotte Higgins, wrote “the first thing that strikes you about Middleton’s visage as it looms from the sepulchral gloom of her first official portrait is the dead eyes: a vampiric, malevolent glare beneath heavy lids…then there’s the mouth…(she is, presumably, sucking in her fangs).”

The Duchess’s delight, the public’s outrage, and the artist’s despair is a familiar trinity in the history of British royal portraiture. Artist, subject, and public seldom move in tandem. And the artist is almost blamed for the miscommunication. Portraiture as an artistic form has a long and varied history, but has always had the same daunting task: to be the sole, everlasting representation of a figure. The stakes are even higher with the royal portrait as it must somehow fuse the way the subject views herself, the way the public views the subject, and, ultimately, who the subject is in the eyes of the artist.

Emsley isn’t the first one to get it wrong. Charles Saumarez Smith, former director of the National Portrait Gallery, wrote “In the latter half of the 20th century almost every royal portrait has been excoriated by art critics and the popular press.” Queen Elizabeth II has a long history of portraits gone awry. She’s sat for129 of them and is said to be the most portrayed person on earth (including her image on stamps and currency). John Napper’s 1953 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, commissioned by the Liverpool City Council, was outright banished for bearing almost no resemblance to Her Royal Highness and “portraying the monarch with an exaggeratedly long neck,” according to Today News. The painting was hidden from view until last month when it was hung St. George’s hall to commemorate the event’s 60th anniversary (and perhaps to console the Duchess). Napper was devastated by the public’s reaction, according to his wife.

Lucian Freud, widely considered one of Britain’s greatest painters, painted a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II that created a divide between press and critics. The Sun called it a “travesty,” and said, “Freud should be locked in the tower for [it].”  According to the BBC, the painting has been described as “thought provoking and psychologically penetrating” while others likened it to a carpet. Stuart Peterson Wright’s portrait of a shirtless Prince Phillip was turned down by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce in 2004. After taking a peek at the portrait at the end of his first sitting, Prince Phillip “spluttered ‘Godzooks!’” according to The Guardian. The artist responded, “He was a bit startled, but I think quite flattered.”

Perhaps as Kate Middleton sat before Paul Emsley last summer, once in his studio in Avon-Upon-Bradford and again in Kensington Palace, he felt a deep urge to produce the beauty and precision expected for a royal portrait instead of something avant-garde. Yet Emsley’s decidedly unflattering representation of the Duchess seems to ignore all that. The youthful, bright-eyed Duchess is supplanted by a tired, haggard, soon-to-be mother who can’t escape the spotlight. Nowadays, royal portrait viewers “want evidence of a real person. It’s very challenging­—they want an ordinary person and someone special simultaneously,” explained Paul Morehouse, curator at the National Portrait Gallery, in an interview with Vanity Fair. This dichotomy reflects a growing divide in Great Britain, especially among young people, as to what they see as the role of the royal couple and family. Prince William and Kate Middleton fulfill a historic duty, but they are also major celebrities. In fact, there is so little evidence of the royal couple’s normalcy that some artists have profited from simply designing false images of what their real lives.  British artist Alison Jackson, for example, recently released photographs of royal couple look-alikes celebrating Christmas at home.  Jackson has developed an entire career around creating such scenes, including the queen in her nightgown having breakfast in bed.  According to her website, Jackson “creates scenarios we have all imagined but never seen—the hot images the media can’t get.”

Whether or not Kate Middleton has been represented accurately in Emsley’s portrait matters much more to the royal family than to the public. With the help of two-foot-long telephoto lenses and greedy tabloid tycoons, images of Kate Middleton’s private life­—her fluctuating weight, tumultuous prenatal health, and topless vacation—are accessible to the general public. With so many images like these, the official portrait becomes somewhat obsolete. Queen Elizabeth II never reveals her feelings about her official representations. Maybe she’s learned there’s no such thing as everlasting.

GRIER STOCKMAN B’14 is, presumably, sucking in her fangs.