Created on: January 24, 2013 Last Updated: January 25, 2013
A silver earing peeks out of the coppery blanket from Kate Middleton’s hair on one side of her face; on the other her hair breaks like an ocean wave down her navy blue blouse. Different hues of pink, white and ocher blend with shadow over her dimpled cheeks. Her green-gray eyes peer out with a perfect imitation of life and every eyelash and strand of eyebrow hair is accounted for. Even her lips seem warm and about to break into a loving smile. The background is completely black so that the viewer is concentrated solely on the way in which the light touches the duchess. But what is it about Paul Emsley’s portrait that has caused such a divide on public opinion?
Rob Simon, Editor of British Art Journal saw the painting and immediately wished he could unsee it. “Fortunately,” he said, “the Duchess of Cambridge looks nothing like this in real life. I’m really sad to say this is a rotten portrait.” And this is not a case of an isolated, cranky critic. Former Editor of Art Review magazine had this to say: “This is the most bland and predictable portrait in living memory.”
Paul Emsley is Scottish born, but has spent most of his life in South Africa, where he is a prominent artist. He has won numerous awards including 1st prize for Singer & Friedlander Sunday Times (2003) UWE Drawing Prize (2004), and the BP Portrait Award (2007). His merit is without question, but perhaps the blame does not lie within the talent of the artist, but his choice in which to portray Princess Kate. “I’m interested in the landscape of the face,” Emsley explained, “the way in which light and shadow fall across the forms.” However, the light and shadow seem to be his downfall in this case. It looks as if her face has matured and taken on lines and shadows that she will not see for at least another fifteen years. Her skin seems to have softened in the way a woman with many years and hard-earned wisdom does.
The director of the National Portrait Gallery was heard saying that he was delighted by such a captivating image, but it was reported that the majority of the public took one glance at the painting before making an excited bee-line towards Sam Taylor-Wood’s video portrayal of a peacefully sleeping, half-naked David Beckham.
In defense of his work, Emsley says that the critic’s negative attacks are nothing more than a “witch hunt.” He went on to say, “At first the attacks were so vicious that there was a point I myself doubted that the portrait of the Duchess was any good. But now I’ve had time to reflect, I am still happy with it and am getting on with my life. There is nothing I would have changed.”
While the critics have been no less than vicious towards the painting, the people who matter the most have praised the royal portrait. “It’s beautiful, it’s absolutely beautiful,” Prince William praised. Kate herself said, “It’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.” Whether she was speaking from the point of view of an art school graduate or as a person whose portrait is a possible disaster, we may never know.
Learn more about this author, Jay Maul.
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