Kate's first portrait

January 13 2013

Image of Kate's first portrait

Picture: Mail

Oh dear, it is pretty awful, isn't it? And it’s so big too, which only amplifies the awfulness. When I went to see poor Kate’s new portrait earlier today it seemed I was not alone in instantly disliking it – there was much tittering and shaking of heads among my fellow viewers. That it is hung alongside some of the National Portrait Gallery’s very best contemporary portraits – opposite, for example, Michael Taylor's excellent portrait of John Tavener - further heightens the feeling that we have here a real turkey of a picture. I’m not surprised that it has been universally panned by commentators. But what I am surprised by, given that there is no shortage of good portrait artists out there, is how the NPG allowed this to happen to their new Patron.

The answer is, unfortunately, that it was probably inevitable, and for two reasons. The first is our (and the National Portrait Gallery’s) increasing obsession with photo-realist portraiture. The NPG’s main contemporary portrait competition, the BP Portrait Award, now seems actively to encourage photo-realism at the expense of traditional portraiture – indeed, the artist of Kate’s portrait, photo-realist Paul Emsley, himself won the award in 2007. The second reason, which is related to the first, is that there must have been a wish to choose a safe pair of hands for Kate’s first official portrait. One presumes that there was a desire to avoid a ‘controversial’ picture like Stuart Pearson Wright’s (brilliant) portrait of a half-naked Duke of Edinburgh holding a fly. Photo-realism allows for a safely conservative portrait, since the artist is effectively limited to just painting a photograph, one the sitter themselves can approve before anything goes too far.

The problem is, though, that the NPG has ended up with a safe but stultifyingly dull portrait, and, worse, Kate has been subjected to some needlessly negative media and public reaction on one of her first forays into the arts. Regular readers will know that I have long been unimpressed with photo-realist portraiture (to me, painting a photograph requires no more skill than photographing a painting, just more time). However, when done well there is no denying that photo-realism can have an initially impressive impact, as the viewer is allowed to feast on the minutest details of an interesting-looking sitter; the crevasses of a wrinkled face, the intensity of a dazzling eye. 

Sadly, Kate’s portrait is not only a woeful piece of painting, it’s also a woeful piece of photo-realism. There are few interesting details for us to be impressed by - indeed, Emsley himself has bemoaned the lack of ‘wrinkles’ on Kate’s face. But although the portrait relies on photographs, it nevertheless attempts a veneer of painterliness, and the result is an awkward collision between banal photography and bad painting. It reminds me of the washed out, soft-focus photos of the elderly one finds in high street studios, or, more commonly, American shopping malls. As a painting, it conveys nothing of note whatsoever, and fails entirely to bring the subject to life. The flesh tones are pallid, stale, and so unbalanced that Kate appears to be recently deceased. Visitors at the NPG need only walk three paces to their right to see, in a series of Mario Testino photos of Kate, that happily she looks nothing like Emsley's picture in real life. Emsley has tried hard, but he is out of his depth.

This painting then is a shining example of the fundamental weaknesses of photo realist portraitists. For all their attention to detail, for all the hours the artist spends standing close to the canvas labouring over a single hair, there is no corresponding sense of overall perspective, and certainly no penetrating exploration of character. The whole becomes lost in the detail. One wonders if they ever stand back and look at their portrait from afar. Might we hope, therefore, that the very public failure of this portrait leads to a reappraisal of photo-realism? 

The omens are not good. In a sense, the NPG is merely reflecting the public’s appetite for paintings that look like photographs. We are now so conditioned to looking at the world through a lens, be it in our mobile phones, digital cameras, or on the telly or in newspapers, that we expect our paintings to look like photos too. Stick-in-the-muds like me and Brian Sewell might say that a painted portrait should be the means by which we eschew the instantaneous, one-way, emotionless gaze of the camera lens. But these days too many portraitists rely on cameras, and the result is the increasing eclipse of the oil portrait done from life, in long sittings where artist and sitter could built up at least a semblance of some deeper understanding than is ever possible through photography.

The irony in this case is that there is one person who agrees with me to such an extent that he’s even established his own art school, where art students are taught the traditional techniques of the Old Masters. He is, of course, Kate’s father-in-law, the Prince of Wales.  

Update - a reader places the blame more in Kate's direction:

Wait....didn’t Kate receive a degree in the history of art not too long ago? Either her degree should be revoked, or it’s a sad testament to the quality of higher education in this country (not to mention the whole connoisseurship issue...)  Here was a good chance for her to champion all the things one hopes and assumes a history of art graduate would have learned with a unique practical demonstration of that knowledge, and all I can hear is scores of parents saying ‘we paid good money for you to study the history of art and that’s what you learned??’ 

I found the portrait pretty revolting to look at – it reminded me of a Breck shampoo advertisement from the 1960s aged to show how the sitter (missing? dead? fugitive from the law?) might appear today.

Another reader cautions:

At first glance 'Kate' is so ghastly that it transcends the Ecce Mono, and then gradually I wonder if the NPG was tricked into commissioning a conceptual, and subversive, Great Work of Art.

Update II - another reader writes:

Photorealism is an impressive style of art when painted well. However, more often than not this style of painting places the viewer's focus on the painting's technique rather than its subject (and as such, arguably emphasises the achievements of the artist rather than the sitter). 

If the aim was to make Kate's portrait seem modern and up to date then it seems a shame, with so many fantastic portrait photographers working in this country,  that the final outcome was not a photograph. On the other hand, if the aim was to produce a painted portrait for the sake of tradition and Kate's art historical background, then why not fully exploit the fact that paint is not reliant on reality alone. The result is an uncomfortable  hybrid of these two media, no doubt caused by an over-zealous attempt to express the new 'with-it' generation of royals but in a traditional manner. In doing so the painting becomes the equivalent of a postage stamp - it shows the image of the (future) queen, but not much else.

Another reader sees the influence of a recent Leonardo discovery:

I would hazard a guess that it is a rather poor attempt to make the Duchess of Cambrige look a bit like Leonardo's? Salvator Mundi. The blurry picture on the front of the weekend's newspapers made me come to this realisation.

The only real mystery seems to me to be why the expression of her lips don't seem to match the rest of her face.

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