Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, official portrait by artist Paul Emsley. Photograph: NPG/Rex Features

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, official portrait by artist Paul Emsley. (Photograph: NPG/Rex Features)

VALENCE, France — The internet has its royal panties in a bustle, once again. Today’s unveiling of the portrait of Kate Middleton, or rather the British Duchess of Cambridge, met with gasps of horror, followed by a cascade of sarcastic media and Twitter wit. The subject of much of the outrage and verbal discourse being the pressing matter of whether artist Paul Emsley portrayed the future queen as being pretty enough.

The duchess, who viewed the portrait this morning, was quite open about being pleased with it, saying, “It’s just amazing, I thought it was brilliant.”

The portrait, which was commissioned by the royal family for display in the National Portrait Gallery, was painted in an expectedly conservative classical realism of thin layers over a perod of many months. The artist worked directly with the duchess during two sittings, then continued painting from a photo. The painting is the first official royal portrait of the young woman.

“The brief was that it should be a portrait which in some way expressed her natural self rather than her official self,” said Emsley. “When you meet her, that really is appropriate. She really is that kind of a person. She’s so nice to be with and it’s genuine and I felt if the painting can convey something of that then it will have succeeded.”

The Glasgow-born painter Emsley, whose previous commissions include Nelson Mandela, was well aware that the public eye of scrutiny would be fixed upon the finished product of the portrait. “It’s probably the most important portrait I’ll ever do, and when you realize that, you do start to think rather carefully about what you’re doing perhaps more than you usually do, and that made me more cautious than I normally am.”

Cautious or not, Emsley’s take on the duchess has met with outcry from critics, media, and the general public. Editor of the British Art Journal and Daily Mail critic, Robin Simon said, “Fortunately, the Duchess of Cambridge looks nothing like this in real life. I’m really sad to say this is a rotten portrait.”

Sunday Times critic Waldemar Januszczak is also quoted as saying that the portrait of Kate Middleton makes her appear “older than she is and her eyes don’t sparkle in the way that they do and there’s something rather dour about the face.”

Founder of The Jackdaw and former Art Review magazine editor David Lee affirms, “This is the most bland and predictable royal portrait in living memory. It is the sort of safe, uncomplicated, pedestrian image one might expect to see in a High Street photographer’s window. It looks as if the painter asked the subject to ‘Say cheese!’ and then told her to scram and buy some clothes while he painted the photograph.”

The Huffington Post calls the portrait awkward. The Atlantic asks if anyone likes it. The Guardian compares it to something from the Twilight franchise. The Daily News wrote, “Art critics say the painting, unveiled on Friday, doesn’t do Kate Middleton’s beauty justice. She appears worn and beyond her 31 years, they say.” On Twitter, the criticism is birthing a meme. Whether it be a parody Prince Charles account tweeting a Beast Jesus version of the portrait, or another user invoking a striking comparison to the 1980s television show Beauty and the Beast, fun and mockery is to be had by all.

Granted, the portrait is expected, even bland, but do these comments reflect the painting, or rather the unflattering light in which Kate is portrayed? Is the problem, in the eyes of the critics, media, and general public, an issue with the actual painting, or rather with a standard set for such a public persona, and for women in general?

Kate Middleton is expected to be glamourous, and sexy, yet classy. She’s a bankroll for tabloid paparazzi and an endless subject of awe and scrutiny. Has the sin, in this case, been commited by the painter, for aging her, simplifying her, and taking away her shine? Or perhaps the fault lies with the subject of the painting, Middleton herself, who desired to be portrayed this way. But there is another, darker hypothesis, that the blame should be given to a society that expects a young, beautiful woman to be even younger and more beautiful than she really is.

Samantha Villenave is an artist, translator, and tech blogger. She lives in southern(ish) France and sometimes Paris. She spends way too much time on the internet, including Twitter: @samvillenave.

36 replies on “Kate Middleton Portrait Buzz: Art Criticism, Sexism, or Something Else?”

  1. She just looks awkward. I’m not sure how else to describe it. She seems so vibrant, alive and confident in all other photos/videos. Plus I don’t think anyone criticizing this wants her to look younger than she is, just younger than she appears in this portrait.

      1. I’m torn between thinking two things:
        1. She had to be polite or PC about it

        2. It felt more like a real representation to her than the constant photographs she probably sees of herself, thus she connected to the painting and most likely the artist as well.

        1. I agree, Dada. I think part of the shock is that Kate usually does look so vibrant and young in all the pictures we see of her. And I also agree, she is too classy to say anything negative about her portrait. But I think she is also classy enough to see the merits of it, so I think she truly appreciates it.

  2. i think a portrait such as this was most likely a very intimate conversation between the artist and his subject, the final outcome is probably the fruits of that conversations, albeit a rather dried up fruit it is. we could really be looking at the way Lady Middleton really feels after all time under the far too hot lights of the paparazzi.

  3. ok there is no question that this painting is a bummer but it is not one problem or another. Like any failed art its all in the combination of the elements.

    1 While people may feel they are responding to her age, the over puffing of her left cheeks is what makes her look unattractive (hold a piece of paper over the right side of the image and you’ll see what I mean)

    2. Its got some serious Thomas Kinkade vibes going on.

    3. Strangely, the way she emerges from the darkness is reminiscent of an Elvis on black felt painting.

    4. actually now I kind of like it.

    1. Brian; you are right, the shadow on her left cheek is exaggerated, flattening the right side of her face and causing increased distortion. Did you not note the awkwardly elongated neck and the flattened nose? I think this is more about the lack of skill on Elmsly’s part: or abject carelessness. It’s just a ‘bad” painting!

  4. I am not a fan of the Monarchy; this is my first and hopefully my last post on the subject. It is clearly a well-done portrait by a highly-skilled painter, and I like it. It is authentic. Portraits are nothing if not ‘the original Photoshop’ that was always intended to cynically disguise people’s natural flaws. It’s truly refreshing to see a celebrity portrait with artistic integrity for a change. Thank You Samantha Villenave for asking the question.

  5. The eye of the beholder and all that. She could have been portrayed in one of many ways all of which would have attracted critism in one way or another. Is the subject happy?.Yes. End of !.

  6. I really like that this is the first time I’ve read anything about a picture of Middleton that says nothing about what she is wearing. It seems like the portrait forces people to see her and not move directly to her body and her designer. At the risk of adopting a “returning the gaze” argument, I wonder if that’s what bothers people.

    Also, this may be a good time to look at a history of how royal portraiture has been received. I mean, ths is not nearly as bad as Picasso’s depictions, is it?

  7. Hrag, I am just going to come out and say it. I think you are totally right. There is so much garbage in our brains about how a woman – let alone a princess – should look. I just showed this to my roommate – who interned at the feminist press for god’s sake – and the first words were she looks old. I vow I am not making this up. It really happened in my living room. The conversation about this portrait reeks of sexism – much if it bubbling beneath the surface – in this expectation that a woman should always be represented as fresh poised 22 year old eligible for to be a miss america contestant. She doesn’t look old in this picture nor she she look like a teenager. But she doesn’t look eligible for beauty contest and that’s the twisted expectation that many secretly hold that this portrait leaves unfulfilled.

    1. I didn’t write this, Daniel. Samantha did, but I do think she has hit on something. And the portrait is pretty run of the mill royal contemporary royal portraiture. The male royals have rather similar realist portraits and no one says anything.

  8. A vote up or down, nor a value judgement required. Acceptance is the message. Perhaps the very image of a queen ten years from now when the world may be heavier upon us all.

  9. What a horrible “portrait”! She looks old and tired. And it doesn’t even look like her. The face is too long, the eyes too small and too close, bags under her eyes, the cheeks got cellulite, the lips are turn down like Pippa’s instead of turn up like Kate’s. And what with the fog? Nothing is focused. Does the artist need glasses? Many art students can do better.
    With thousands of wonderful photos of her, why bother with this amateurish portrait?

  10. Reminds me of Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. She was horrified because he made her look old and she complained it does not look like her at all. He said, “Don’t worry. You will look like that in 20 years. Then you will think it’s a good portrait.”

  11. This is why art history is so important, kids.

    The tradition of “Royal Portraiture” as never …. NEVER… been about achieving a likeness.
    All those royal portraits done by Rubens, Michelangelo, Velasquez; are you niave enough to think the Kings and Queens looked like that?
    Royal Portraiture is about politics. It’s about the image the crown wants to project.
    So take another look and ask your self, “what image are they trying to project?”

  12. We are so used to seeing photoshopped photographs that no one can even tell what a real 31 year old would look like in a representation anymore. I’m pretty impressed that she approved the non-airbrushed affect. It actually makes me like her.

  13. After a few days of thought on what might be going on in her eyes and mind, what moment has been captured, it’s come to me. The painter has captured that moment of quandary, of indecision. The universal question of ‘spit or swallow’.

  14. I think it is a strong portrait – there is plenty to look at and ponder. People do not naturally ‘look’ exactly the same from day to day. This portrait conveys something of a person as perceived by another. I am not sure why the observation that there is some photographic effect to the painting is an issue for some. For me, that tension is well navigated.

  15. While it’s applaudable that Duchess Kate was gracious about the portrait, it’s clearly not a very accurate or flattering portrayal. I question the skill of the artist: clearly the proportions of her neck are off; it’s elongated and looks geeky. The attention paid to the details around her eyes age her, and the representation of her hair is flat and lacks highlights. Her nose is not accurate either. I don’t think it’s really a question of sexism, or “pretty” prejudice. “Official” portraits shouldn’t take structural or interpretive liberties…..they’re just supposed to look like the subject. Some would question whether they are even really “art”; by contemporary standards, probably not, just craft…….Duchess Kate’s eyes have depth and compassion; that’s about the only flattering comment I can make. For protraiture, I like Jacqueline Jasper. She’s great.

  16. I’m a bit late to the party, but I feel this portrait should be considered in the context of Emsley’s other work – which are mainly paintings of old men. He captures age, wisdom and a sense of empathy in the face of Mandala, but I think he lacks empathy for pretty young women.
    After all, aren’t portraits as much a reflection of the artist’s personality as the sitter? He probably could have done an excellent portrait of Charles, but I don’t think he was an appropriate selection for Kate.

    1. Interesting, I didn’t know that he mostly paints older men. I have often wondered about artists and portraits…I believe that it is often easier for an artist to draw or paint someone who looks like them, as they are so used to seeing themselves. I am a portrait artist, a young(ish) female, and I definitely find it harder to do portraits of older people, especially men. I think I am just not a familiar with them.

  17. Maybe she likes it because she doesn’t look like an airhead, fashion freak or some twit paparazzi’s fantasy. She looks like she might have a brain in that head, could handle being a queen…and, after all, she is going to be a mom soon. Toned down makes sense to me. As far as the coiors go, we are looking at a computer screen that has a photo of a painting. Also remember the palette of Lucien Freud, the darling of the Brits. I don’t even know why people think this makes her look old. You stand any 20-30-something in light like this and you could very well see some…character.

  18. Painters are expected to be plastic surgeons when doing portraits. It’s not really fair on them or their sitters. I know (as a gallerist) quite a few artists who refuse to do portaits anymore because of this. They’re highly subjective on every level. I think Emsley’s work captures her vivacity and pragmatism beautifully.

  19. I love that 90% of negative comments are from people who can’t paint. If the subject likes it, who cares what anyone else thinks?

  20. 2 last paragraphs are written beautifully, thanks to Samantha V., I think it’s the woman’s work to critisize such things for they do feel it better. Portrait shows not the impersonal beauty, but a beautiful personality, with all its dark sides and imperfections. To me strange seems but the “classical” manner of painting, like it was painted 200 years old, this classicism looks a bit artificial, it’s not coming with so modern Kate’s appearance. Still, it’s only my impression. I’d changed her make-up, for having eyes not so large, one may wish they look larger and so paint them more wider, with less intensity, kind of smokey-eyes make-up.

  21. Quite frankly I don’t understand all the nonsense about the picture not resembling Kate. Did people not see the picture that SHE supplied the artist with??? It looks exactly like the picture. That’s how she wanted it and in the end if she regretted that then tough cookies! I think the problem that most have is that this portrait does not portray a woman of 20 or 21 although they are 31 and has not glossed over imperfections to portray her as so. Not to mention that under all the makeup she wears including the heavy kohl eyeliner that she has just stopped wearing she most likely has not so great skin, which most likely stems from the smoking and tanning that she does. The artist only painted what was there. I like the portrait, I think it looks like her and I think it’s a great painting.

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