Tuesday, January 15, 2013

HRH The Duchess of Cambridge official portrait - my verdict

This afternoon I went to see the first ever formal official portrait of HRH The Duchess of Cambridge painted by Paul Emsley at the National Portrait Gallery.  Read on for my review of it and some further thoughts on the viral repercussions of its unveiling - plus what I learned about people and portraits in the last few days.

I studied the portrait in the Gallery for some time - and sat and sketched it as I find that a really good way of really looking hard at a portrait.

The first image you see on this post is a jpeg file sent to me by Paul Emsley himself which has more colour and much less pallor and dark shadows than some of the reproductions I've seen published in the last few days.  I also have a copy of the high-res print version of the official NPG version.  Plus the original reference photo has been posted on an art forum - which also makes for an interesting comparison. So here's how they all vary from what I saw in the gallery.

Essentially both the Emsley and NPG photos are darker than the painting.  Her head in the painting is not seen floating in the dark!  Both also lose some of the definition in the hair which I could see clearly while sat opposite it doing my sketch.  Both make the background too dark.  Coloration is better in the Emsley photo and closer to the original.  The NPG makes some of the shadow areas seem much more marked and bluish than they are in reality. Interestingly the reference photo shows a dark area under the eyes which is less marked in both photos - and the painting!

HRH The Duchess of Cambridge
By Paul Emsley (b.1947)
Oil on canvas, 2012
1152 x 965 (45 3/8 x 38)
NPG 6956 
© National Portrait Gallery, London;
A National Portrait Gallery commission
given by Sir Hugh Leggatt in memory of Sir Denis Mahon through the Art Fund
I had a go at lightening it to something more like what I saw in the gallery.  In trying different tweaks in Photoshop I began to find the tweaks which I think may have been applied to the original photograph which made it a not so wonderful reproduction of the painting - as seen in rather too many places recently.  (I am incidentally more convinced than ever that a number of journalists commented on the portrait without visiting it)
This is a summary of the changes I made using Photoshop. I could see the shirt much more clearly than in the photos. I kept the smoothness of the tonal transitions on the face but lightened the flesh colour.  There are no impasto sparkling highlights (I checked!) and I've not introduced any. I avoided changes which introduced blue shadow areas where I saw none. The darks which frame the face remain at the same intensity as in the painting.  The bluish tinge to the dark behind her head is now more obvious.  Lightening it also seems to have made it lighter on the left which is what I remember seeing in the gallery. Overall, in my view, the painting now appears much less harsh than some of the reproductions - as indeed it is "in real life".

Now - all you have to remember is that what it looks like on your screen is totally down to the quality and colour accuracy of your screen!

Paul Emsley's photograph - lightened by me based on my viewing/sketch of the portrait
HRH The Duchess of Cambridge - the concept

Nobody seems to be in the least bit interested in the concept which underlies the portrait - that this is a benchmark portrait at the beginning of her royal career where she is painted as her natural self rather than the way she looks when "on parade".

I think this is a decision which has been taken by a woman who graduated with a degree in the history of art, who knows more than a bit about portraiture - and how members of the Royal Family can be portrayed - and had the sort of confidence in her self which comes from having passed her 30th birthday.

For me - the painting is almost "anti Princess" - there's no bling, there are no expensive clothes to focus on.  It's certainly in no way ostentatious. Instead it's quiet, quite serious but with a strong hint in the mouth of a good personality and a sense of humour.  

What struck me was that it almost looked regal.  It's as if she skipped the Duchess and Princess bit and went straight to Queen.  She certainly came across to me as somebody who is mature and wise and intelligent. I think she's going to be a very interesting Royal and this portrait makes me think people would do well not to underestimate her.

HRH The Duchess of Cambridge - the painting

My comments fall into two parts - 'technical' with respect to differences from the reference photo and 'critical' with respect to the portrait as I viewed it in the gallery - in reverse order.


I think it's a fine portrait - if you like this level of realism and heads which are larger than life.  I'm a fan of more painterly interpretations and I don't tend to like "big heads". In my view, one can get too caught up in the detail and miss the overall impact.

However my preferences are irrelevant for the purposes of commenting on the painting.

If it's the client's choice to have a "big head" than Paul Emsley does some very fine ones.  I don't think this is his best painting - and I think maybe he does men rather better than women e.g. I think his rendition of Nelson Mandela is absolutely stunning.   That said I still think it's a fine portrait painting

The size (1.5 times life size) and the format are both typical of Emsley. He also doesn't set out to flatter - he paints what he sees - which makes him a good choice for somebody wanting a painting of what they actually look like.  Not quite the 'warts and all' but not far off.  The Duchess was apparently very keen to have a portrait which represented her as a real person - her natural self - rather than something which spoke of her formal life, of bling and looking her best.  I think she got what she wanted - she certainly seems pleased with it.

I personally find the painting very restrained.  It's not exciting, there is no bling or razzle dazzle 'princess' about it.  It also grows on you as you look at it and I think this is a painting which will develop a good reputation over time - not least because of her 'Mona Lisa' smile!

Waldemar Januszczak said he was "disappointed" by the portrait because the Duchess' "eyes don't sparkle".  I have news for Waldemar - most people have eyes which don't sparkle.  I've become convinced over the years that the "sparkle" is an invention of portrait artists who want you to look at their paintings!


Emsley changed her top.  In the reference photo she's wearing a dark sapphire blue sleeveless top - presumably to go with her wedding present of earrings to match her engagement ring.  Emsley changed this - giving her sleeves and making the colour a dark blue green.  This colour seems to also underpin the dark surrounding her.  As I sat and looked at it, it seemed to me to be a lot lighter and not black at all.  It's colour is certainly a logical complementary to what appears to be a dark chestnut rinse in her hair.

A lady in the gallery commented that giving her sleeves and making the top a dark muted colour made her seem older than she is - and I think she has a point. In age terms there's a lot of difference between a jewel like sapphire colour and a muted dark greenish blue.  Women her age also go sleeveless - as she had - while older ladies tend not to.

He's also made the neck much darker in the painting.  A I sat and looked at the painting I kept puzzling about the colour of the neck and it kept bothering me.  Having seen the reference photo I now understand why.  I think I'd have preferred to see it lighter - however it's Emsley's practice to darken his portraits towards the bottom.  In this instance the bottom line of the crop comes below where it would normally be (ie just below the neck) because of all that hair and I wonder whether he started the darkening process a bit too early.

Oddly enough for a realist painter, the hair is not real enough for me. Although the structure of the hair is fine, the hair is just a bit too smooth for my liking - which in the current groomed hair context suggests artificiality.  I'd have liked to see a few more stray hairs out of place.  I have to confess however that Emsley has stayed faithful to the colour at the roots.  Is it only me that can spot the roots coming through after a rinse to liven it up? It made me more convinced than ever that this is a woman whose top priorities do not lie in looking good all the time - for which many thanks!

I checked out the paintings of Diana Princess of Wales in the NPG's permanent collection.  I thought it was very interesting that all but one of the 47 portraits of  in the collection are photographs not paintings - and there is no doubt the lens loved Diana!)

Things I've learned about comments on royal portraits
  • The nature of the comment you make says far more about you than it does about the portrait!
  • More artists than I would have thought possible are :
    • prepared to believe that a photographic reproduction is completely accurate(!) and then comment accordingly
    • capable of being mean-spirited towards a fellow artist.
  • Never let a good portrait get in the way of a good story. 
    • Newspapers like a good story which make people buy their papers and look at their websites
    • Art critics can get very carried away with their metaphors at times - particularly those who don't take time out to visit a portrait
Things I've learned about the Public
  • For a painting to succeed with the public, any painting needs to measure up to the public's concept of what she should look like. Most of the public seem to want the Duchess to look like she does in the photographs - that way they know she's real. They see "pretty and always smiling" in the photos and they want "pretty and always smiling" in the painted portraits - especially if they also have a photographic degree of realism!
  • Most of the public seem to have no idea that she is now 31 years of age.  In my view, their comments about ageing are much more a product of a photo not a painting.  
  • Comments about features are almost entirely linked to "how things should be" not "how things are".  Most of them have never noticed that she is genetically endowed with permanent bags under her eyes or a very strong chin or cheeks which have a tendency to pouch.  They appear to have no idea they are criticising how the Princess looks in real life not how the artist has chosen to portray her.
  • Most of them are happy to be carried away by the manufactured hysteria about the royals which the media generated.
Things I've learned about Portraits

I'm betting most of us never knew that not one single painted portrait in the National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection of some 11,000 portraits has an open mouth.  Sandy Nairne, Director of the NPG was quoted by The Guardian as saying "There isn't a single open-mouthed portrait in the collection," (although I guess he may have forgotten this one!)

It's the "no teeth in our paintings" gallery.  Important people in the UK do not do smiles - period! 

I was interested by this notion and looked this up online and came across a few articles which explain the history behind this approach to portraiture and why.
and finally......

Hopefully this portrait might be the first of many. I'm also pleased to hear that The Prince of Wales has, as a 30th birthday present to Prince William, also commissioned Nicky Phillips to paint a portrait of the Duchess following her earlier painting of Princes William and Harry.  

NOTE: Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, now The Duchess of Cambridge, was born in Berkshire and attended Marlborough College. The Duchess studied at the British Institute in Florence before enrolling at the University of St Andrews in Fife to study History of Art. She married Prince William of Wales at Westminster Abbey on 29 April 2011. In January 2012, St. James’s Palace announced The Duchess’s acceptance of five honorary positions, one of which was a Patronage of the National Portrait Gallery. Her first solo public engagement was the opening of its Lucian Freud Portraits exhibition and The Duchess has shown a keen interest in portraiture and photography.

HRH The Duchess of Cambridge by Paul Emsley is on display now as part of the Contemporary Collections in the Lerner Galleries, Room 36, Ground Floor, National Portrait Gallery, Admission free

National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place WC2H 0HE, 
opening hours Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday: 10am – 6pm (Gallery closure commences at 5.50pm) 
Late Opening: Thursday, Friday: 10am – 9pm (Gallery closure commences at 8.50pm)
Nearest Underground: Leicester Square/Charing Cross 
General information: 0207 306 0055 Recorded information: 020 7312 2463 Website/Tickets: www.npg.org.uk

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  1. Thank you Katherine for this informed review.
    I will be in London in April and hope to see it in person. I still love the portrait and look forward to seeing more of Paul Emsley's work.
    The only small query is re her eyes - in the photo there appears more depth however the painting appears (in a photo) to have more light reflection - the eyes are the window to the soul and perhaps for me that is the only question as to why we don't get brought deeper into the eyes.
    Thank you for speaking up about the way people critique artwork. I do think that the public are far more harsh with portraits of women than men - a little like appearance in real life ....

  2. i'm with you - i found the hair to be totally unrealistic, almost cartoony!
    your 'lightened' pic looks much better than what i'd seen in the papers - the head floating in the dark...
    i am disappointed by the painting though, it doesn't engage me and it's rather boring with no personality shining through, which is not how kate herself appears to be at all!

  3. Katherine, I have found your comments about the portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge very helpful indeed. One of the problems with the being able to send images so easily and so quickly by electronic means is the changes that occur in the quality of the image – it's a bit like visual Chinese whispers! Every time a jpeg (which is a 'lossy' form of digital image) is passed on and saved by yet another person, the quality tends to decrease. That you took the time and effort to show those of us who don't live near the National Portrait Gallery a closer representation of the painting is much appreciated. Your comments also prompted me to look at the other work by Paul Emsley, not only his human portraits but also those of animals and flowers. His work in chalk is absolutely stunning. As a botanical artist, I was particularly impressed by his accurate, yet delicate portrayal of flowers that captures something quite ethereal in each bloom. I would love to know more about the technique he uses . . . any chance you can find out. How I would love to attend a master class with him!
    Thank you again for a very interesting and useful post.

  4. Brilliant review and I read your links about smiling portraiture with interest. I've been looking up smiles as well and always wondered about artists that insist on the not-smiling but instead blank, bored and tired face of a 40-hour sitting. I suppose the trick with teethy smiles is to not make them look cramped, make it look happy and relaxed; something that is a lot more difficult than painting a still blank face. Expressions are always more difficult than blank faces.
    Although I can say about any painting that I would have done it differently or something might not be my taste, I find that Emsley's portrait is wonderful and indeed shows a real person, a real woman and it has been very surprising how much negativity has surrounded such a wonderful thing. I am very pleased that a well established skilled realist artist got the job, instead of a Turner Prize contender. I suppose the 'realness' of the painting illustrates how unreal all these press photos are.

  5. Now that I see a larger version and you have worked some magic to try to show it as it appears, I find that I really like the portrait. I like the way he painted her, including the navy blouse. There is a subdued elegance that befits your description of her as a natural person. She also has that most perfect ovoid face shape. I cannot comment on the artist's technique so much as I really don't have the knowledge base. I like that the lines and shadows I saw beneath her eyes in the first post on this painting aren't as heavy as they appeared. I think she and Wills make a gorgeous couple.

  6. Thank you for putting us in the picture, Katherine! This is a really informative and educational review that I really appreciated.

  7. Hello, Katherine, I completely agree with you that images of paintings (whether online or elsewhere) are often very misleading. You've provided a real service by opening this discussion and providing images to illustrate the problem.

    Thanks so much for your kind words and link to my blog post about whether portrait subjects should ever be painted smiling (http://annebobroffhajal.com/2009/06/to-paint-smiles-or-not-to-paint-smiles-where-do-you-stand/). Many people are reading it through your link.

    I suspect that much of the negative reaction to the Kate Middleton's portrait is that the painter has (either accidentally or intentionally) over-emphasized the facial muscle contractions around the mouth and nose, creating a subtle sneer. In the reference photo, Kate had a subtle smile. The two expressions have some similarities in muscle shape, but the effect of each on the beholder is very different!

    I feel that when painting fleeting human expressions in portraits, the artist needs to know in detail which facial movements and muscles create various expressions. Otherwise it's very easy to accidentally paint the wrong expression and wind up in trouble! There are two wonderful books about painting (or simply understanding) the bases of human expression, by Faigin and by Ekman and Friesen. More information about these two indispensable books is here: http://annebobroffhajal.com/2008/08/the-engaged-portrait-subject-part-1-expression-of-emotions/
    Thanks again,
    Anne Bobroff-Hajal

  8. I came over to your blog to read the post about Pinterest and copyright, so I can't help but ask, in a tongue in cheek manner, if you had Paul Emsley's permission to alter his photograph and repost it in its altered form?

    1. In the same way as this image has been defaced and distorted by people all over the Internet - without permission? By people who take images without asking?

  9. Thank you Katherine for giving a very informed and interesting review of the portrait. I am often called Kate, was once referred to as Your Highness, regularly emailed as Kate, and recieve post, contracts and commissions as Kate, so I have a unusual view of the real lady herself.

    I am so grateful for our post, and to have the chance to view and learn how to read, and look at a portrait painting ~ thank you, Karen Middleton.

  10. I will reserve any judgement till I see the real thing. Whether you like it or not it's beautifully painted. It's so easy to criticise, as painters we are up against this all the time. I have grown a thick skin over the years, most people haven't a clue what they are talking about when it comes to art anyway. The phrase 'I know nothing about art but I know what I like' is a sure sign it will be followed by a derogatory comment. If anyone is brave enough to make an assinine comment to my face the usual reply is "Well, where's yours then?", it usually does the trick and will either shut them up or they walk away. I only listen to criticism from other painters I respect.

  11. That's a very thoughtful and perceptive review, for which thanks. However, re your "Things I've Learned About the Public," I personally just think the portrait is hideous, and I believe my response has nothing to do with what I think the Duchess "should" look like. I've reflected on it, and I honestly think my reaction would be the same if it were a painting of a total stranger about whom I had absolutely no preconceptions.

    Never mind that I dislike the copied-from-a-photo style generally; this just doesn't look human to me. I really very much dislike it.


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