Jerry Saltz on Kate Middleton’s Terrible Official Portrait

Media representatives gather in front of British artist Paul Emsley's portrait of Catherine, The Duchess of Cambridge after its unveiling at the National Portrait Gallery in central London on January 11, 2013. This is the first official portrait of the Duchess and was completed after two sittings at the artist's studio and Kensington Palace.
Paul Emsley’s portrait of Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. Photo: Leon NEal/AFP/Getty Images

Art usually only makes the news in America when the subject is money. Here, the dollar is king. In Great Britain, the queen is “king.” Even though it’s still a mystery to many Americans, the British populace’s unhinged fixation on and fetishization of their ever-beloved royal family knows no bounds. Combine this national obsession with one of those garden-variety fits of art shock the English love, and sparks will fly. Sure enough, last week Britain went bananas about the new royal portrait of the 31-year-old wife of Prince William, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. By Saturday, the front page of the New York Post blared news about the “fury” the painting was producing in England.

London “arts writers,” aflutter, were aghast that Middleton “looks nothing like this in real life.” Others, overwrought, had waterworks about the way the picture makes “the future queen look like a dowdy 45-year-old,” resembling “something unpleasant from the Twilight franchise.” Gotta love that use of “unpleasant.” There are complaints that she looks “haggard,” that the eyes are too far apart or too small. The lips are pursed, the cheeks “lumpy.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the flapdoodle, a splendacious art-historian named Christopher Lloyd gushed in an official video about the greatness and mystery of the portrait, comparing it to Leonardo fucking da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer! This 24-karat fruitcake yammered about the picture’s “psychological import,” its “ethereal effect,” and its “slow, methodical method.” Leave it to the British to go whole hog in both directions at once — and for everyone to somehow still get it wrong.

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.

Lest we forget, however, painting works its dark arts in mysterious ways. This dreary picture brilliantly reveals much about its subject, its critics, its supporters, and the British feel for painting. Middleton, we’re told, “studied art history.” She picked the painter, Paul Emsley. We’re seeing exactly how she thought she’d be seen, how she sees herself, how she wants others to see her. The picture was 100 percent approved by the royal couple. She described it as “just amazing. I thought it was brilliant.” So much for her art-history background. Her husband concured, “It’s absolutely beautiful.” I hate to break it to the British, but their future whatever-they’re-going-to-bes have pretty soft taste — nay, bad taste — in art. Meanwhile, transfixed by the subject alone, lovers and haters alike miss how lackluster the actual picture is, too.

Frankly, I’d toss out the portrait and start again. I’d genuinely love to see Chris Ofili or Sarah Lucas get a crack at Kate. I can imagine brilliant things coming from these artists. Do that and the Brits would really have something to get their knickers twisted over, and not this shopworn picture of what looks like a shop girl.

Jerry Saltz on Kate Middleton’s Portrait