Today the National Portrait Gallery in London unveiled what is sure to be the first in a long line of portraits painted of Kate, duchess of Cambridge. It’s a huge 45 3/8 inch by 38 inch oil on canvas by the South African artist Paul Emsley. There’s no tiara, no formal gown, just a tight close-up of her face and glossy, flowing locks. And it’s controversial from the beginning. While Kate, who, as patron of the NPG and a history of fine art grad, saw it with Prince William and her family, approved—”It’s just amazing, I thought it was brilliant”—others unleashed a torrent of vitriol on artist Paul Emsley.
“If Kim Jong Un, supreme leader of North Korea, had a portrait painted of himself in a similar idiom, we’d all be crowing from the rafters about the pitiful taste of foreign despots,” intoned Mark Hudson of the Telegraph. “The misty eyes, the minxish puckering around the mouth, the coils of dark auburn hair are all rendered with a painful literalness—these are features the artist believes the mainstream viewer wants to see, captured in a ‘style’ he believes they will like. There’s no real light, no real form, no real structure in this painting.”
Emsley, a South African artist famous for his super-realistic portrait of Nelson Mandela, seemed to know the criticism was coming. On the NPG website he explained his rationale for Kate’s portrait: “The duchess explained that she would like to be portrayed naturally—her natural self—as opposed to her official self. She struck me as enormously open and generous and a very warm person. After initially feeling it was going to be an unsmiling portrait I think it was the right choice in the end to have her smiling — that is really who she is.”
There are some fans. Richard Fitzwilliams, a press consultant to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, told the Times, “This informal work depicts Kate’s natural beauty rather than showing her in a formal royal setting. It shows her strength of character, which blends with her enchanting smile.”
Meanwhile the NPG has a video about the portrait, a gift to the institution by art dealer Sir Hugh Leggatt:
Oh, postcards are available, at 70 p (around $1.10) each. After all, when it comes to royalty, everyone wants to cash in.