Kate’s Portrait and the Purpose of the Royal Picture

Yesterday, The Duchess of Cambridge’s first royal portrait was revealed by The National Portrait Gallery.

kate middleton portrait

I will keep my opinions on the painting brief and to the point. I don’t like it. Obviously there is no denying Emsley’s technical skill in creating this super-realist work. But, it’s drab. It’s dreary, dark, and quite frankly disappointing. When I think of Kate, I imagine gorgeous colours, her visit to the Solomon Islands when she was swathed in yellow, and that beaming smile.

Furthermore, the ‘smile’ just seems out of place with the rest of her face. Emsley admitted the portrait was initially intended to be unsmiling, so perhaps it was an alteration. Either way, I’m not keen.

My main problem with the portrait, is that it doesn’t tell us anything new about Kate. It may as well be a photograph. To be blunt, it is a waste of the fantastic medium of painting.

However, what I really want to examine is the genre of the royal portrait. Traditionally, royal portraits were an assertion of power, grandeur and omnipresence to a nation without the media. So, now that we live in such a connected world where thousands of images of the royals are at our fingertips, has the royal portrait lost its purpose?

Let me examine a traditional royal portrait to demonstrate what I mean.

van dyk charles i

Van Dyk’s Equestrian portrait of Charles I (1638) for me exemplifies the traditional purpose of the royal portrait. But, to say the whole painting is preposterous would be an understatement: it is essentially a lie.

Looking at the extended leg across the muscular horse, we could easily believe Charles himself was a tall, strong, healthy man. In reality, he was 5’4 and of a very sickly disposition. The dramatic landscape frames the portrait beautifully, bestowing what was in reality a very troubled reign with an air of grandeur. I for one would not argue with that horse.

Van Eyk’s portrait functioned as propoganda, much like Fascist and Communist propaganda in the early 20th century. The vast majority of the public would never see the King, or have any idea what he looked like. So, Charles was able to fully take advantage of the situation and project himself as some kind of super-human.

So, in the age of televisions and the internet where there really is nowhere to hide, what is the purpose of the royal portrait?

In recent years, even the Queen’s portraits have kept up with the modern age. Lucien Freud’s portrait was so radical it hit the headlines, and even Rolf Harris has had a go (the less said about that the better). As Kate knows all too well, the cameras are everywhere and will publish photos of you from every single possible angle. The modern royals, unlike Charles I, don’t need to project an image to the nation through portraiture: the tabloids do that for them.

Therefore, I feel Kate’s portrait should have been something more imaginativeĀ and experimental. We all know what she looks like: how about using the media of painting for what it’s for and expressing something about her personality; something deeper than all those photographs?

Images rights: The Mirror and The National Gallery.

2 Responses to “Kate’s Portrait and the Purpose of the Royal Picture”
  1. Kate says:

    Completely agree with you about the portrait! I think her eyes are off as well; she looks so much older and somehow…haggard?

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