Kate's first portrait: good or ugly? - Macleans.ca

Kate’s first portrait: good or ugly?

National Portrait Gallery unveils Paul Emsley painting of the Duchess of Cambridge


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.

Sang Tan/AP

“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.

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Kate’s first portrait: good or ugly?

  1. So they couldn’t even price ’em at a quid apiece, eh? :P

  2. This portrait makes her look 10 years older.

    • My thoughts too. It is a faithful likeness, but she seems tired.

    • Yes, 10 years older than she was 10 years ago.

  3. De gustibus non est disputandum

    Modern art leaves me cold. Other than Group 7, I think art since 1900 is mostly awful.

    People should just be glad that Kate’s eyes, ears, nose and mouth are in correct places.

  4. Next week the same “Con Artiste” will be over here in Canada on a big bucks commission with the Canada Council and the Attawapiskat/Zamboni Indian Band. He’s been asked to render something with “painful literalness” of Chief No FN Invoices.

    I’d like to see something with the Chief sitting in her tent, surrounded by beaver pelts, and gazing skyward to gitchi; something original that doesn’t leave her looking like the spitting image of Benito Mussolini.

  5. Appreciating art is very personal, we all see it in a different way. I personally love it.