“A ghastly portrait.”

To be or try not to be...
To be or try not to be…

As an artist, I’ve heard just about everything about my art.  And people aren’t shy to tell me how to improve it, what they do or don’t like, how their art should be on display instead of mine, how their relative is an amazing artist, they found a piece of art at a rummage sale and want me to appraise it, or about the new Thomas Kinkade trinket added to their collection.  In fact it appears today there is absolutely no filter on opinions (yes, I’m guilty as charged).  Perhaps Twitter, Facebook, smart-phones, and the “I’m special for existing culture” is to blame.  However, it appears everyone wants fireworks and applause for each new experience.  To take the time to analyze or think, well… that is just unthinkable!

Recently at the National Portrait Gallery in London, a new painting has been creating some controversy.  It is a painting of Kate Middleton, who is the wife of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge.  Artist Paul Emsley (with an impressive resume) was commissioned to create a portrait which was supposed to be a great opportunity and honor.  From Paul Emsley’s website: “By creating a settled half-light I try to transform the existence of the object from the ordinary to something more profound.”

Here’s a sampling of what the critics said about Emsley’s painting:

Adrain Searle of The Guardian: “The portrait is as soundless and smooth as an undertaker’s makeover.  Emsley has approached his subject with the sort of artistic safe pair of hands that could smother the life out of anything.  The duchess’s presence isn’t even spectral, let alone vampiric. She doesn’t look older, as some have complained, just already weary of being looked at.  Painterly convention has got to her, though she claims to like it.  Were it a portrait of anyone else, it would be of no interest whatsoever.”

Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian: “Kate Middleton is – whatever you think of the monarchy and all its inane surrounding pomp – a pretty young woman with an infectious smile, a cascade of chestnut hair and a healthy bloom.  So how is it that she has been transformed into something unpleasant from the Twilight franchise?  The first thing that strikes you about Middleton’s visage as it looms from the sepulchral gloom of her first official portrait is the dead eyes: a vampiric, malevolent glare beneath heavy lids.  Then there’s the mouth: a tightly pursed, mean little lip-clench (she is, presumably, sucking in her fangs).  And god knows what is going on with the washed-out cheeks: she appears to be nurturing a gobbet of gum in her lower right cheek.  The hair is dull and lifeless; the glimpse of earring simply lifts her to the status of Sloaney, rather than merely proletarian, undead.”

American art critic Jerry Saltz: “What’s lost to all of the royalty-obsessed critics and supporters is that, in and of itself, the painting is unqualified outright drivel.  As the Post might put it: It sucks.  It’s an absolutely lackluster, conventionally generic, photorealistic rendition of a pretty, white, thin, young, bourgeois-looking woman with long hair.  At best, the painting looks like a Breck Girl ad, a portrait of the dean of a fancy girls’ boarding school, or some corporate-trading-firm officer.  The technique is diligent, the colors dim, the surface is run-of-the-mill lustrous, the composition is monotonous and humdrum, and the face in the picture is fairly common, somewhat vacuous but pretty.  Nothing about it is distinctive, original, or anything other than mediocre.”

This is just a few of the “positive” comments on Emsley’s painting.  Take a look at the painting and decide for yourself:


Being an artist, I realize the time and effort that goes into creating.  Sometimes the end result is a success or failure.  My 5-inch thick rejection letter binder is a reminder everyday of that struggle.  However, the overall critical consensus of Emsley’s painting is correct and wanted to believe it wasn’t true.

Curious on Emsley’s process, I watched a YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TREGwwEPhmY) of the artist describing the process creating the portrait.  In the video he explains how the Duchess wanted to appear more “natural” than her “official” self as the camera pans over a pile of various stacked photos.  He states how he met with her twice to discuss the portrait than two additional sessions of taking photos and sitting.  Emsley then discusses how he normally works from “life” but photography is much more accurate, making it easier to work.  Bottom line: convenience of technology hindered the painting.

Undoubtedly, the biggest flaw in his portrait is that the references and time worked derived from photos.  The camera distorts what the eye can see in person.  Sitting on the final review boards at the Academy of Art University, the committee stresses for figurative artists to work from life as much as possible to capture the true character of the subject.  Emlsey strayed away from this basic concept and regrettably it shows.  The majority of his work has “life”- while the Middleton portrait appears dead.  Perhaps the saying that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” will ultimately work in Emslsey’s favor.  Currently for the artist, the critical sting must hurt…

The links:






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