Artwork: Emsley's Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge

Title: Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge
What: Oil on canvas
Who: Paul Emsley
When: 2012
Where: National Portrait Gallery

It’s not been a great year for immortalisations of the Duchess of Cambridge, with those topless photos and that panned portrait (see above). Not exactly quick-off-the-draw, I’m going to take a look at Paul Emsley’s depiction of Kate, which was revealed at my favourite place in the world – the National Portrait Gallery – a fortnight ago.

Yesterday, Emsley was licking his wounds all over the British media; saying he is the victim of a witch hunt (aw) and reminding us that Kate L-O-V-Es it (double aw).

To summarise the mob’s problems with the picture:
  • ·         He has aged her by about a decade.
  • ·         He has given her hamster cheeks (is she eating something?).
  • ·         It’s a little dark, a little dismal.
  • ·         Her eyes are dead; they bore into the viewer. Kinda like we’re prey. Bit scary, Paul.
  • ·         And, to quote Charlotte Higgins, she has been flattened into a curious Vaseline-smeared, soft-focus dullness.

All valid accusations, I’d say, after having looked at it for long enough. But we’ve gotta keep a couple of things in mind:

The subject
Come on, Kate is the ultimate national treasure and the media is never going to think anything is good enough for their girl.

The style
Emsley’s paintings are hyper-realistic, a style resembling a hi-res photo.  By employing this style he immediately opens the painting up to vulnerability because essentially, he’s trying to do what a camera can do – but better.

In asking whether the painting ‘looks exactly like Kate’, we are not only making damn sure that the painting is a failure, but also missing the whole point of a portrait. Do we ever want a reproduction of reality? No, we have real life for that. Portraits are painted to capture the essence of the sitter, not their exact appearance. In this respect, arguments that it doesn’t look like Kate are defunct. Arguments that he hasn’t captured Kate properly, however, are valid.

And to think, this is only the first of her royal portraits...

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