Saturday, 12 January 2013

Portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge. Twitter reaction. Criticism. Catherine Cookson. Other portraits.

The Duchess of Cambridge by Brian Emsley 2011

The National Portrait Gallery has just unveiled the first official portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge to the general public: the Duke and Duchess declare it is brilliant and just beautiful. They have to be tactful perhaps, and the Duchess did have a say in the choice of the artist. The trouble is, one commissions a portrait and takes a chance on the result.

Nonetheless the painting has not gone down well with art critics or the public,  and rightly so.
  • ·    “The portrait is as soundless and smooth as an undertaker's makeover” Adrian Searle in the Guardian.  Spot on: Emsley seems to have wiped the Duchess clean, so little of her character is seen. He admits he changed the colour of her eyes to match the colour of the dowdy blouse he portrayed, rather than sticking to the real clothes worn by the Duchess. That pussy-bow neckline went out years ago.
  •      Waldemar Januszczak of The Times called it the "boring type of royal painting" we’ve been "churning out for the last few hundred years in Britain.”  It is dull indeed  and the black background makes it even worse.
  •      The portrait was "catastrophic," according to Michael Glover in the Independent, giving the Duchess "hamsterish" cheeks and "hair whose featheriness has been borrowed from an advert for shampoo." In real life, the Duchess has glossy hair, but you'd never know that from this portrait.
  •       Artist Brian Emsley is said to have made the Duchess look ten years older than she is, and that is true too.
  •      On the BBC website. JB, a member of the public, wrote 11 January 2013 - 15:08: “She obviously looks very like her father, but the mouth area just looks just too masculine, there's even a bit of five o'clock shadow”.
Artist Frieda Kahlo often used to paint her own moustache, even exaggerating it. She has put a portrait of her husband, Diego Rivera, in her forehead like a third eye. (But that's another story, concerning Lobsang Rampa...).
Frieda Kahlo Self-Portrait 1907- 1954

Mark Hudson in the Daily Telegraph is right to liken the portrait to a cover of a Catherine Cookson novel, although Tilly in the latter has a lot more spirit than the Duchess appears to have been given in the portrait.


The Mirror showed the Twitter reaction: Twitterers have been having fun and have even added Celia Gimenez' take on the Ecce Homo painting.

Last year in Borja in northern Spain 80 year old Celia tried to restore a flaking and  ancient painting of Jesus in her church with unfortunate results: it is now known as Monkey face.
Ecce Homo as restored by Celia Gimenez in Borja

Duchess' Twitter Gimenez lookalike
The portrait of the Duchess was given to the National Portrait Gallery by Sir Hugh Leggatt, who also commissioned Annigoni to paint the Queen. Emsley deservedly won the 2007 BP award for his painting of Michael Simpson below, which has the same dark background but a lot more warts and all, and consequently merit. Perhaps the artist was too awestruck by the Duchess' status to give her his usual treatment.
Michael Simpson by Brian Emsley 2007
                                          Other Portraits, Royal and otherwise.

Germaine Greer 1995 by Paula Rego
This realistic portrait shows Germaine with messy hair in a dress, in what looks like a student's digs. The pose must have been uncomfortable for the sitter, and it is still unusual to paint women with their legs wide open, even if covered by a skirt. The painting captures the essence of Germaine, who is more interested in ideas than in how she looks or how comfortable she is.
Diana, Princess of Wales by Bryan Organ
The portrait captures Diana's sense of isolation: the closed door accentuates this. Princess Diana is wearing a trouser suit, which was considered modern in those days.

Anna Zinkeison  by Doris Zinkeison 1898-1991
Doris was a popular society portrait painter: she became a war artist too and painted the laundry at Belsen in 1945. This portrait of her sister, who was also an artist,  shows variations of light and shade which are so lacking in the new portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge.

HM The Queen 2012  by Pop Artist Peter Blake,
for the cover of the Radio Times
The Queen has had many portraits done during her reign. The early portrait by Annigoni went down well with the public but not with the critics: it is however the one people remember.

Pop Artist Peter Blake painted the Queen last year for her Diamond Jubilee: he has been heavy-handed with his depiction of wrinkles and face-powder, but he has let her off lightly. She is painted going through a door, symbolising perhaps the next decade of her reign.

The paintings below of the Queen and Queen Mother have light backgrounds, which show the surroundings and clothes better, as well as a sense of the mood of the sitter.
The Queen 1954
by Pietro Annigoni
Coronation portrait of the Queen Mother
by John Helier Lander

Portrait of my Father 1925 by Salvador Dali
Dali's early portraits are true to life, and deserve to be better known.

Winston Churchill 1954 by Graham Sutherland
Both Houses of Parliament commissioned this painting. Churchill hated it so much that his wife Clementine had it destroyed: it is not known when. She ran short of money when she was in her eighties and sold some paintings off; the proceeds kept her going. The Sutherland would have been worth a lot of money. It is odd that Churchill who had so many fantastic qualities over and above those of a normal man could have been so vain about the way he was portrayed.