The Art of Failure

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Presumably Her Grace will live long time and over that span have her portrait painted many times. This means she can afford to give the odd bad portrait a gracious overlook. But I do find it very sad she didn’t put a little more effort and thought into her first royal portrait for  . . . oh, so many, many reasons.

As an Art History major, she must know the above is a bad portrait. This is not to say it’s bad art. There’s a difference. Freedom is something artists should have — when they do with their own individual art. It is not something they should have when doing portrait. Otherwise, the resulting work is “an art work by . . . .” rather than “a portrait of . . . .”  It becomes about the artist not the sitter.

Her Grace’s portrait is all about the artist, not the sitter. That’s partially Her Grace’s fault. She was only able to give Emsley 2 sittings, so he had to work primarily from photos — always a bad thing. But it’s mostly the fault of The National Gallery, which commissioned Paul Emsley, winner of its BP Portrait Award in 2007, to carry out the first official painted portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge.

Now, I understand that  a wealthy and well-known art dealer agreed to paid for the portrait. And Her Grace could hardly have objected to adding a portrait by a famous artist to The National Gallery (of which she is patroness), especially as it could be obtained for nothing more than 2 sittings. But Paul Emsley isn’t known for beautiful color (most his works are grey) or his composition (always the huge head in the dead center of the canvas).

Barring some strong guidance by the sitter (Her Grace) any expectation of something other than a “Paul Emsley” was foolish. Left to his own devices, he did what he always does as an artist. And he’s a very good artist (born in Glasgow, but raised and from South Africa), but he’s really not a portrait painter. Great portrait painters capture the essence of a person in a way that will resonate through the corridors of time and will make the subject known to all who look upon him or her.

I understand Her Grace’s only instruction was that he wished to be portrayed “naturally,” but naturally simply means as who she is. Who the Duchess of Cambridge is — and has always been, even as Miss Catherine Middleton — is a young, beautiful, stylish, intelligent, fashionable, charming, warm, caring, funny, smiling human being. Yet none of this comes through.

This portrait could have been a statement about herself and about modern British democratic, equality, the elevation of “commoner as royal.” She should have been portrayed in totality, as the beautiful, stylish, intelligent, fashionable, charming, smiling young woman she is. But the artist actually decided she was “too beautiful” and apparently purposely painted her ugly. He also decided she shouldn’t be smiling because “most portraits don’t s show teeth.” I’m sorry but Her Grace is beautiful and she naturally smiles. This should have spurred the man on to do a portrait of a royal that was “ground breaking” — in that it showed her smiling!

There were so many things that could have done and said with this portrait, the portrait of a commoner who will one day be queen, and will soon be mother of a future king or queen. So many missed opportunities to speak to people (for generations) via this portrait. It’s tragic. I could have made a better natural portrait of the young duchess!

See, even I could make a better modern, unsmiling potrait!

See, even I could make a better modern, toothless potrait!

He might have portrayed her outdoors, beside a large oak (representing England). He could have shown her in the city of London, or at the cottage she and Prince William live in Wales. She might have been near an object that represents Africa (a place she and Prince William love and where they became engaged). He might even have gone for a little humor and painted her beside a spray of wisteria (the British press referred to Kate and Pippa as “the wisteria sisters” — ie, social climbers).

That this portrait above was the end result of 6 months work is just sad. This work makes Her Grace look 20 years older that she is, dowdy, and not a little drunk. A friend of mine that saw it wondered aloud if the artist “hated all royals or just Kate?” It would seem as though Emsley felt Her Grace’s personality equivalent to wallpaper. What other explanation for the way her dark dress and dark hair blend into the dark background? It’s as if he is wishing she would just disappear.

This is just an epic fail by a great artist.

One never places the subject of a picture, let alone a portrait, in the dead middle. It’s poor composition. Or worse, no composition. The eye has nothing to draw it, no reason to linger. The use of color is awful. She’s a brunette, in a dark blue dress. She should be on a light background so one can see her hair and clothing. And for heaven’s sake, a person’s posture, gestures/manner, their personal dress sense, the things/places they love . . . all of that belongs in a personal portrait. That’s what tells you about the person.

Just compare the above “natural” portrait of Her Grace to the natural style portrait by Gainsborough (c. 1760) of his 2 daughters below. You barely see their clothing or their cat, but their posture, expression, attitude all comes through. You know who these girls are, despite their youth. You relate to them, despite the fact they lived 275 years ago! This is a glorious natural portrait. Too bad the Duchess of Cambridge couldn’t hire Gainsborough!

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2 thoughts on “The Art of Failure

  1. I can’t believe this painting! How thoughtless of the painter! I mean who is going to want a painting of them selves looking older! It’s really bad 😦

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