The Thinking 

Portrait of a Duchess

January 16, 2013


WHATEVER ONE thinks of the face of the Duchess of Cambridge, whether one finds it as mesmerizingly insipid as I do or beautiful, this official portrait of her by Paul Emsley is an abomination. Yes, it is a painting, one which erases entirely the glorious tradition of British portraiture. Joseph McKenzie at Taki’s Mag captures it:

Instead of a portrait, Emsley has produced an overblown mug shot. All mug shots are unflattering because they have nothing to do with the human soul’s depths. Kate Middleton is more than the sum of her facial attributes glacially rendered by an uninspired technician’s cold hand.

 McKenzie goes on to write:

Whatever England had of culture after the Reformation has been either borrowed or purchased from the Continent. It is therefore impossible that a modernist such as Emsley should understand the charm of portraiture. For him, the English eighteenth century, with its glorious Gainsborough and affable Reynolds, is a stale museum, not a vibrant school full of useful lessons for portraitists of any age.

Art, the eternal mirror of the human soul, can only reflect modern life’s lack of charm. Emsley’s canvas is essentially empty: He even managed to remove the Kate from his Duchess of Cambridge.

Even if Kate truly looked, as she does in this portrait, like a middle-aged suburban mother, with dyed hair and a double chin, the sort of woman who has spent so many hours staring at her children on soccer fields and drinking pina coladas with her girlfriends that she has no internal depths, the goal of her portraitist should have been to conjure someone much more interesting, to at least feed a nation with an imaginary ideal. But then again, modern-day Britain is as shallow and as empty as this, and perhaps cannot be inspired by anything higher.

—- Comments —-

Kevin M. writes:


Lydia Sherman writes:

I think there are a lot of unsung artists out there who could paint Kate’s portrait in the style of Winterhalter, (1805-1873) who was the painter of royalty for many years.  His portraits of European royalty can be found here.

Portrait of Madame Barbe de Rimsky-Korsakov


Paul writes:

One of the Takimag posters (“Randy McGregor”) memorably commented:

“It looks like the portrait is being painted in a bar, and she is deciding whether or not to sleep with the painter and is one drink away from yes.”

Mrs. Sherman adds:

I have seen this realism with photographs, too. Friends and relatives insist that pictures they’ve taken of someone are “great pictures” but they capture someone’s likeness with one eye shut or with a temporary grimace on the face of the subject. Such people have explained to me that such photography is showing what a person “really” looks like. The subjects of the photos do not necessarily agree and will sometimes ask not to be included in a photograph because of the carelessness in which it is taken.

 Sibyl writes:

My stars, is that a bad portrait of Kate Middleton! The face is somewhat blurred and unpleasantly positioned, with the mouth puckered up as though she had just put a cough drop in her mouth. Contrast this with John Singer Sargent, who portrayed a great variety of faces.

Note that these people are allowed to have their idiosyncratic expressions, but the positioning and coloring is masterful. There is art to these, not just representation, but the art involves revealing the work of art that each of these subjects is. These are faces that we want to look at, not faces that strike us as flat and photographic (in a bad way).

To give the artist the benefit of the doubt: maybe he really thinks Middleton has the soul of a soccer mom, and portrayed her that way out of dislike — that’s been known to happen.

Laura writes:

The Royal Family doesn’t have to accept a portrait it doesn’t like.

 Mrs. P. writes:

I did not recognize Kate Middleton in this portrait. I took her for a much older woman.

Michael S. writes:

I know this isn’t precisely your point, but…

I really wish grocery stores would stop stocking those stupid tabloid magazines. I think that during my entire life I have seen exactly ONE person put one of those on the conveyor belt for purchase. Who buys those things?

Anyway, they’re hard not to notice. And Kate Middleton is a favorite these days. Sometimes I see her on the cover and think, “She’s pretty, in a general sort of way.” And then other times I think, “Wow, she’s not going to age well.” Sometimes she reminds me of Camilla.

(Advice for parents: Don’t give your daughter any name that rhymes with “gorilla.”)

Paul writes:

If you had entitled your article “Image of a Duchess,” I would have assumed it was a bad photo before reading further.  Even after examining it, I find it hard to tell.  As the below links indicate, the portrait is undergoing heavy criticism in Britain.  (Allow a few seconds for the links to load fully.)

Based on the momentary glimpses I have seen of her on TV and elsewhere, I thought she was this attractive young woman.  The portrait shows a plain woman.  Men are experts at recognizing attractive women, and I am a man.  This version of her official portrait at least shows the exquisiteness of her hair and styling.

By accepting this proof—the kindest word available—as her portrait, she is trying for an egalitarian, bourgeois look in keeping with the royals’ trendiness instead of an appropriate impressive look that prior royals were expected to maintain.  She was saying, “See, I look just like you in your high school or college yearbook.”  If we are to believe herportraitist, I am accurate.

He should not have accepted a bourgeois attitude; she is no longer part of the bourgeoisie and must behave accordingly.  Liberals don’t get this.  As Jim Kalb has indicated, we are incapable of accepting a uniformed policeman as one of us because we know they are not.  Stereotypical behavior such as wearing uniforms reflects truth, and liberals don’t want to accept objective truth exists.

Her portraitist should have refused to pose her as he did.  There are an infinite number of ways a woman can hold her head and expression such that some positions are excellent and some are just okay.  The artist should know how to pose his subject even taking into consideration the intent of his subject.

I support grown women of any age coloring their hair.  But her hair color and eyebrow color are much too different for many people not to titter about even though genes can produce the same result.  She should have lightened her eyebrows a little or left her hair darker, assuming it is naturally darker; and I am not even a girl.  Her hair is dark in all the glimpses I have had of this Duchess with the lovely name Catherine.  (Maybe it is the cameras and lighting, as imaged here.)  So I was surprised to see her light hair.  As thisphotograph shows, she does not always want to appear “natural.”

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