While reading The Guardian (a UK newspaper) online, I came across the headline that Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, had had her first official portrait painted, I could hardly wait to see it. I mean she's a gorgeous, vivacious and charismatic young princess, (but not so young as to be a bland, blank slate)... what could go wrong?
So when I opened the story and saw a portrait Thomas Kincaide (the late, self-branded 'Painter of Light') might have been proud of, I was very, very disappointed.
Now I am usually someone who looks for and finds the positive in all kinds of artwork (ask any of my students, or people who attend my Gallery Walk & Talks), but faced with a portrait this bland, this made-for-greeting-cards, (in stark contrast to the
the subject), it seems worthwhile to consider what went wrong.
First, what went right?
If you visit the original story in The Guardian (just click on the painting), you will see that the painting is considerably larger than life, which seems suitable for the Duchess's personality.
I have no doubt that the proportions and features were carefully measured and re-measured so as to be accurately rendered.
Also, as in real life I'm sure, lots of attention was lavished on her hair.
OK, so what went wrong?
Too much focus on accurate rendering has led to a portrait that looks like Kate might look aged 50 having had some tasteful but effective cosmetic procedures done.
The soft focus airbrush effect has got to die, it looks like a Breck shampoo ad from the 1970s, (remember them?) and terribly kitsch.
A person's beauty, personality and vitality come from within not from their surface appearance, the same surface applied to a different inner person would look different (as often happens with twins as they age for example).
There are loads of gorgeous people who don't have classically beautiful features and proportions, who aren't young and perfect-looking but they make our heads swivel, they are magnetic.
The artist in this case needed to be freer in his application of the paint (make actual marks; give the paint the lively personality he needed to convey about the very lively Kate!); make artistic decisions, including altering the measured proportions of the face, to create a more accurate feeling for the person being portrayed. Accurate measurement ≠ truth.
A key way artists take responsibility in their work is by making artistic decisions, whether that means editing, altering, adding, distorting and/or doing other things. Sometimes those decisions are going to work better than others, but they will still represent an attempt to communicate a point of view.
I feel badly for Emsley, the pressure of painting this beautiful and much-loved royal couldn't have been heavier, and while I'm sure he did his best I think he knows it's a disappointment because The Guardian reports he “said he had faced one difficulty with the portrait. Kate, he said, was just too beautiful to make a good subject.“
That does sound rather like making an excuse though doesn't it? I would have been happier if he'd said that her beauty was a challenge to adequately convey, because she is patently an excellent portrait subject, but the best subjects aren't only the easy ones.
What do you think of the new portrait? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.