If she feels betrayed, Kate is too polite to say so, said Valentine Low in The Times. The Duchess of Cambridge personally chose the artist Paul Emsley to paint her first royal portrait, and last week he unveiled a larger-than-life close-up that emphasizes lines and bags under her eyes and “makes her look nearly 10 years older.” Kate claimed to find the portrait “amazing” and “brilliant,” while her husband, Prince William, dutifully praised it as “absolutely beautiful.” Art critics beg to differ. “It’s difficult to pinpoint what is most offensive,” said Stuart Pearson Wright, who painted the prince’s grandfather, Prince Philip, a decade ago. “Is it the pursed lips and lumpy cheeks that put one in mind of Marlon Brando in The Godfather? Or the disparate eyes, too small and far apart from one another?” The portrait is downright dowdy.
What a terrible thing to do to a lovely young woman, said Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian. In real life, Kate has a sparkling smile and a youthful bloom, so why does she come across here as washed-out and haggard? Perhaps Emsley was trying to nod at contemporary culture by portraying the duchess as “something unpleasant from the Twilight franchise.” The most arresting part of the portrait is “the dead eyes: a vampiric, malevolent glare beneath heavy lids.” Next to draw one’s gaze is “the mouth: a tightly pursed, mean little lip-clench—she is, presumably, sucking in her fangs.” Obviously Emsley was not “trying to flatter,” said Michael Glover in The Independent. A photographic realist, Emsley is best known for his award-winning drawing Indian Rhinoceros, which painstakingly reproduces every pock mark and fold in the animal’s hide. If this sort of realism, applied to a person, goes even “slightly wrong, as has happened here,” the result is “catastrophic.”
That is only true if you demand that a portrait look conventionally pretty, said Andrew Eaton-Lewis in Scotland on Sunday. That’s not what Emsley was after—nor is it what Kate wished. The painter says the duchess “wanted to convey her natural self as opposed to her official persona.” His approach is therefore “provocative and revealing”—he is showing us that her official duty may be to look young and pretty and smiling, but perhaps inside she is more serious, even a bit sardonic. Kate herself loves it, yet her enthusiastic endorsement is being ignored. Apparently, for the art world as for the shallow masses, “young female royals should be pretty, glamorous, and sparkly-eyed, and their opinions don’t really matter.”
I don’t mind that the portrait is unflattering, said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. Far worse is that it is boring. It’s “the sort of unchallenging image that hangs, probably somewhere above the grand piano, in chintz-smothered drawing rooms all over the country.” It doesn’t even aspire to be anything other than ordinary. “This is middle-class, middle England in its most middling guise.” Perhaps, deep down, Emsley is a revolutionary—and this portrait his blow against the monarchy.