Ugh, it is so hard to find a good portraitist these days! June 23 saw the reveal of a new portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Kate Middleton, affectionately), and critics wasted no time registering their opinions about it. Executed by award-winning British portrait artist Jamie Coreth, the painting was commissioned by the Cambridgeshire Royal Portrait Fund and features visual symbols of the county from which the couple draws their titles — including a background palette referencing stone buildings of Cambridge and, on the duchess’s dress, a special brooch that once belonged to Princess Augusta, 19th-century Duchess of Cambridge, loaned to Middleton by Queen Elizabeth II.
“As it is the first portrait to depict them together, and specifically during their time as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, I wanted the image to evoke a feeling of balance between their public and private lives,” said Coreth in a press statement. “The piece was commissioned as a gift for the people of Cambridgeshire, and I hope they will enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed creating it.”
Oh, Jamie, Jamie. As every high-profile portraitist from Amy Sherald to Ian Rank-Broadley can tell you that you can’t please all the people — but the latter can certainly attest that critics reserve particular vitriol for portraits of beloved royals that they find lacking.
“The real Duchess of Cambridge cheers everyone up with her radiant smile,” wrote Daily Mail columnist A.N. Wilson. “However the figure in this painting is wistful, slightly petulant and actually unrecognisable as Our Kate. It has also made her body a rather weird shape inside the glossy green dress.”
The dress in question is a shimmery emerald sheath by a brand called The Vampire’s Wife, engendering speculation by Gawker writer Claire Carusillo that the uncanniness of the portrait is due to its involvement in an unholy Dorian Gray-style bargain that will preserve the royal couple in their youthful visage through time immemorial. Although if we’re talking about unnaturally prolonged lifespans, perhaps haunted portraits are the secret to 96-year-old Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign, the longest of any monarch in the history of the United Kingdom.
Rachel Campbell-Johnston interpreted that waxy, eternal youth quite negatively in the Times, noting, “The couple pose like mannequins made to advertise a modern monarchy. But if you want to meet them in replica you would probably do better to go to Madame Tussauds.”
Frankly, all of this seems a bit picky. The whole nature of painted portraiture relies upon a history that largely predates film and digital photography; no one complains about resemblance with Rembrandt’s subjects, because unlike the modern royal family, they were not photo-documented within an inch of their lives every time they left the house. Perhaps the most astute observation came from the Telegraph‘s chief art critic Alastair Sooke, who said the portrait suits the Instagram era in that it “resembles a smartphone snap layered with various ‘effects.'”
This is correct. The informality of the pose is strange, with both subjects looking away from the viewer in a manner that can only be described as “off-camera.” Not with the stolid middle-distance air of a subject gazing regally into the future, but of two people briefly distracted on the red carpet by something mildly interesting happening behind the viewer. You look at the painting, and immediately look over your shoulder to see what’s going on. The highlights, especially on the dress, feel like filter-work, especially as the portrait seems to shift the palette of the garment from green to teal. Overall the feel is that rather than sit (er, stand) for the portrait, Middleton picked a snapshot she liked and sent it over.
“This one, we both look hot in this one,” she might have said.
And they do! For their part, the couple seemed happy enough at the painting’s reveal at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Though who can really say, since the studied diplomacy of this pair is among their most defining features. Whether or not Coreth captured the inner life of Kate and William, he certainly managed to showcase their talent for standing attractively and inoffensively in a room — and at this point, what else are royals for, anyway?