Kate Middleton Portrait Buzz: Art Criticism, Sexism, or Something Else?

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.

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