Elizabeth I by an unknown artist 1600
When the first official portrait of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, was revealed last week to much gnashing of critical teeth, my thoughts went to all those long-suffering court artists who spent their lives struggling to craft acceptable images of individuals blue in blood but all too often lacking in physical beauty.
A portrait is never an easy thing for an artist - ego and vanity make it treacherous ground to tread. What must it have been like when the likely consequence of an unflattering likeness was the loss of your head?
Mary Cassatt: Lady at the Tea Table 1883
Mary Cassatt, speaking from personal experience, once defined a portrait as ‘a painting in which something is wrong with the nose.’ In her case the painting was Lady at the Tea Table, finished in 1883 but hidden away until 1914 after criticism about the size of the nose from the sitter’s daughter. This beautiful work is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Mrs. Robert Moore Riddle, Cassatt's subject, was of the upper crust but she was American, not noble or of Royal lineage. For an artist to please the picky entitled beings who command armies with a snap of their fingers would have taken diplomacy and tact as well as artistic skill.
Many Royal portraits are State Portraits, easily recognized by all the visual Pomp & Circumstance. In a State Portrait the human individual is subsumed into a version of the nation they rule. In these official images of Francois I of France and Catherine the Great of Russia decorum and power are the intent - though both had lively personalities, quick minds and reputations for promiscuity, we don't get much inkling of it from these paintings.
Francois I of France by Jean Clouet 1525
Catherine the Great of Russia by Alexei Antropov 1766
Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud 1701
The State Portrait that sets the standard has to be the 1701 portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud. Louis’s likeness is apparently a good one, but it doesn’t really matter - it’s the trappings that count. Louis - aka France - was powerful and wealthy and so dominant in Europe at the time that he/it doesn’t need to wear a crown to bolster his authority. The golden sword at his side implies - no need to shout - military might. While the swords carried by his contemporaries were a sign of their aristocratic standing, for Louis – the first among gentleman - his sword hints at a very real threat. He/it can - and did - use it to start wars that involved all of Europe. The impossibly expensive ermine and velvet cape broadcasts wealth while it also drapes the man Louis in the fleur-de-lys, the symbol of France. This get-up was customary for French kings for several centuries, but no one ever wore it with more style or more sincere intent than Louis XIV. (After the original ermine cape was destroyed during the French Revolution a copy was made for the coronation of Louis XVIII. It can be seen in the Treasure House at Reims.) The most individual part of the portrait is Louis’s well-turned legs, a reminder that he was a dancer and patron of the dance; it was in his court that the vocabulary of ballet was established. He also set the style for men for a long time to come - thanks to Louis, men had to display shapely legs, so no doubt ‘touching up the nose’ often meant ‘touching up the legs’ until long pants came into fashion.
Las Meninas by Diego Velasquez 1656-57
Diego Velasquez painted numerous portraits of his patron, King Philip IV of Spain, some of which are more ‘official’ than others. Las Meninas, Velasquez’s greatest masterpiece, is a state portrait of sorts, but a very different sort, one that changed the idea of portraiture, royal and otherwise, forever. The Spanish court of Philip was an extremely serious, rigidly formal place, so Velasquez’s genius for naturalism was a gift to us as well as to Philip. Philip, from the distinguished, jealously guarded line of Hapsburgs, was not a handsome man. He has the characteristic hangdog look - long prominent chin, narrow face and drooping eyes, but at least he escaped the most grievous consequences of all that intermarrying. (The jaw of a close relative was so distorted that he was unable to eat normally.) Thanks to Velasquez, who earned his king’s deep trust and friendship, the legacy of Philip IV is graced by some of the most exquisite, sensitive paintings ever created - and we are privy to an extraordinarily acute sense of Philip’s humanity.
Philip IV by Velasquez 1644
Philip IV by Velasquez 1653
Elizabeth I by Cecil Beaton 1953
The Coronation Portrait of Elizabeth II, a photograph by Cecil Beaton, is quite a contrast to that of Elizabeth I but it’s nevertheless full of the proper symbolic regalia - orb, scepter, ermine, crown, etc. Now, with their hold on the throne so well established, the British Royals apparently have little further need for State Portraits. The new portrait of her Highness the Dutchess of Cambridge is hardly the most radical or controversial of recent Royal non-State portraits.
Elizabeth I by Lucien Freud 2001
Lucien Freud, England’s most celebrated living painter until his recent death, painted the Queen as a gift in 2001. The result is tiny in size but a provocative statement, focusing in on her features with the merciless perspective of a fish-eye lens and squeezing in the Crown in all its diamond detail at the top edge. Robert Simon, editor of the British Art Journal, commented, "It makes her look like one of the royal corgis who has suffered a stroke." The chief art critic of The Times, Richard Cork, describes the image, on the other hand, as "painful, brave, honest, stoical and, above all, clear sighted."
Prince Philip by Stuart Pearson Wright 2004
Prince Philip gamely went along with what must be a policy decision to bolster contemporary British art and let himself be painted by Stuart Pearson Wright in 2004. Wright, like Paul Emsly who painted Kate Middleton, is a past winner of the BP Portrait Award, an annual competition for British artists. Pearson Wright is an artist with a sense of the theatrical and a definite sense of humor – the result is a fine painting, but surely one of the most bizarre entries in the National Portrait Gallery. Philip rejected the first version; he allowed the second, but exclaimed upon seeing it, "Gadzooks!" Why have you given me a great schonk?" The nose again!
Catherine, The Duchess of Cambridge by Paul Emsley 2012
The Duchess and the Royal Family are evidently pleased with the Emsley portrait. I’m not a fan - it’s pretty bland, with no adventurous agenda to make it entertainingly offensive, and it isn’t particularly beautiful either. I find it curious that the artist seemed compelled to sort to the negative with a vengeance, in fact putting negatives in where they don’t exist. He has commented that Kate Middleton was ‘too beautiful’ and therefore hard to paint, but why did he have to makes her look not only old but, as one commenter said, zombie-like? On the other hand, knowing some of the alternatives, perhaps perhaps the family is simply relieved. And the nose seems fine. What do YOU think?Slide show - the ‘Best and Worst of Royal Portraits’ with snarky comments, from the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2013/jan/11/kate-middleton-best-worst-royal-portraits#/?picture=402244397&index=0Websites of the Artists http://paulemsley.com/works/