‘Paul Emsley’s Duchess of Cambridge portrait is catastrophic,’ said Michael Glover in the Independent. The cheeks are ‘hamsterish,’ the face, ‘saggy’ and ‘a touch dropsical.’ Glover blames Emsley’s photoreal method of painting. It seems to him as though the painter is envious of the ‘truth-telling powers of photography,’ so has resolved to attempt the same effect in the hope that the achievement of the skilled ‘hand’ proves the more impressive than that of mere ‘machine.’ Unfortunately the clamour of critics pronouncing Emsley’s likeness to be not like-enough has virtually drowned out any positive response, including that of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge themselves.
A week after the unveiling of the first official portrait of Kate a hitherto “banned” painting of the Queen finally went on display in Liverpool’s St George’s Hall. This 1952 portrait of Elizabeth by John Napper has been hidden from the public gaze for sixty years because it ‘looked nothing like her.’ Even Napper described the painting as ‘a beautiful painting of a queen, but not this Queen.’ The painting veers dangerously towards the comic, as she has been given an extraordinarily long neck. Napper defended the unusual proportions of the portrait arguing that it was intended to be hung high; from this angle the neck would appear ‘normal.’ The council that had commissioned it, however, failed to “see” it that way, and the painting was confined to the depths of the municipal vaults, until now.
If a portrait fails to be a ‘likeness,’ then, it is a failure as a portrait? Albrecht Durer declared that ‘the more accurately one approaches nature by way of imitation, the better and more artistic’ one’s work becomes. Pre-nineteenth century, art that “copied” the visible world was the best kind of art. But then came the Impressionists, followed by the Cubists, and the Abstract art movement – not to mention a whole host of other “- ists” in between – and painting became less about depicting what was seen, and more about what was experienced or felt. This, of course, is an inexcusably glib summary of the history of artistic representation, but, suffice to say, imitation is no longer the only appreciable mark of a “good” painting.
Adrian Searle – art critic for The Guardian – described the Kate portrait as being ‘assoundless and smooth as an undertaker’s makeover.’ In its strain toward perfect accuracy, the photoreal effort loses all vital essence. This is the opposite of what Searle had to say about Lucian Freud’s controversial 2001 portrait of the Queen. This, he hailed as the best royal portrait for 150 years: ‘Freud has got beneath the powder, and that itself is no mean feat.’ Whilst the painting of Kate might be “more true” as a detailed rendering of the subject’s features, for Searle, it fails to connect to the animating force behind the façade: to the person. The course, brutal even, brush strokes of the Freud; the heavy paint and the heavy brow; its ugly fleshiness, render it as intimate, penetrating, not to mention confrontational. It certainly doesn’t flatter. It is a ‘painting of experience.’
For many, however, Freud’s shirking of imitation in favour of impression was perceived as unsuitably irreverent. The editor of the British Art Journal, Robert Simon, complained that Freud had made her ‘look like one of the royal corgis who has suffered a stroke.’ Another tabloid commented that ‘Freud could have saved the Queen the trouble of sitting for him by copying her Spitting Image puppet.’
Today, then, there is no critical or artistic consensus on what type of representation renders a portrait “true.” Royal portraiture seems especially fraught with this debate. The tension between reverence and revelation, flattery and honest record has ever dogged the royally commissioned artist. Factoring the modern debate between abstract and photoreal representation into that equation, one begins to sympathise with the myriad of aesthetic, not to mention diplomatic challenges that face the painter of royalty. ‘It’s impossible to please everyone,’ as the popular aphorism goes.