Arts blog: What is so wrong with Kate’s portrait?

AM I missing something here? What is so wrong with Paul Emsley’s official portrait of Kate Middleton, which went on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London today?

AM I missing something here? What is so wrong with Paul Emsley’s official portrait of Kate Middleton, which went on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London today?

“The first official portrait of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, has been unveiled, and... let’s just say Kate might want to think about untagging this one,” reports the Huffington Post.

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This is an odd and rather condescending thing to say, given that Middleton has enthusiastically endorsed the portrait. “I thought it was brilliant,” she told reporters at the gallery after a first inspection. “It’s just amazing. Absolutely brilliant.” Those who loathe the painting have implied that Middleton had to say this in the name of diplomacy. Really? She didn’t, surely, have to use the word ‘brilliant’ twice.

If Middleton loves it, others don’t like it at all. “Fortunately, the Duchess of Cambridge looks nothing like this in real life. I’m really sad to say this is a rotten portrait,” said British Art Journal editor Robin Simon. According to Sunday Times critic Waldemar Januszczak, Emsley has made Middleton look “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”. Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian went further, writing that Middleton “has been transformed into something unpleasant from the Twilight franchise... “God knows what is going on with the washed out cheeks.” This, Higgins suggests, is an appalling thing to do to “a pretty young woman with an infectious smile, a cascade of chestnut hair and a healthy bloom”. Except that, as stated above, Middleton really, really likes the portrait.

I’d better choose my words carefully here - let’s not use the word misogyny, yet, and particularly not in relation to Charlotte Higgins, whose piece also makes a point of praising Lucian Freud’s famously unglamorous, almost masculine portrait of the queen. Still, there’s something troubling about the fact that the case against this painting is essentially that it makes a pretty young woman look less pretty and less young. Why, in a culture in which we are constantly assaulted by images of women that insist on making them look more young, more pretty, more skinny - and will use all the technology at its disposal to achieve this - is this a bad thing? Is it not refreshing? Emsley has said “the fact that she is a beautiful woman, for an artist, is difficult”, which sounds like a polite way of saying he didn’t want to make some bland portrait that looked like an airbrushed photo from Hello magazine. Middleton didn’t want this either, it seems. Emsley says she “wanted to convey her natural self as opposed to her official persona”.

His approach, then, has been provocative and revealing. Middleton’s “official persona”, this portrait suggests, is merely to look young and pretty. The negative response to it, which has focused far more on Middleton’s looks than the actual merits of the painting, seems to confirm this. What a depressing state of affairs, that a portrait which makes Middleton appear older, more distinguished, and more ordinary is judged to be unfit for purpose. Depressing, too, to see Middleton’s own opinion deemed irrelevant. Conclusion: young female royals should be pretty, glamorous and sparkly eyed, and their opinions don’t really matter.