Remember Lucien Freud’s portrait in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. How could you forget it, right? Freud described the queen as a woman worn by time - pale, grey and shriveled, like a rubber inflatable with all its air let out. It was hard to look at.
Now comes the official portrait of Prince William’s wife Kate Middleton – the Duchess of Kent – who is made to look stone-hard and older than her 31 years. Her usually welcoming face and easy ways are nowhere in sight.
The weird thing is that by his own words, painter Paul Emsley saw her as the world does. As he told the press, "She struck me as enormously open and generous and a very warm person. After initially feeling it was going to be an unsmiling portrait I think it was the right choice in the end to have her smiling — that is really who she is."
Smiling? You call that a smile? If anything, he painted a tense and controlled grin with lips pressed together as if over clenched teeth, as if in a pique, but trying to look pleasant. Then there are her eyes – glazed, with a blank television stare - all bloom of her youth gone.
Emsley did some more explaining: "The brief was that it should be a portrait which in some way expressed her natural self rather than her official self. When you meet her, that really is appropriate. She really is that kind of a person. She's so nice to be with and it's genuine and I felt if the painting can convey something of that then it will have succeeded."
So what happened Emsley?
The answer may lie in something else he said. "It's probably the most important portrait I'll ever do, and when you realize that, you do start to think rather carefully about what you're doing perhaps more than you usually do, and that made me more cautious than I normally am."
Apparently, he was cowed by the commission and stiffened up.
Too bad portrait painter John Singer Sargent isn’t around anymore. His work would have suited royalty. It certainly suited the ennoblement desires of Gilded Age America.
Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth (Bessie) Winthrop Chanler in a black ball gown with puffed sleeves is a gem. Bessie was the 26-year-old heir to John Jacob Astor’s fortune and could easily pass for a European royal.
But Sargent didn’t pay attention to her station and didn’t portray her as some luxury-loving lioness. Maybe that’s because he knew better. Chanler’s mother died when she was 9, forcing her to act as mother to seven younger siblings. Later, at 13, she developed a disease that forced her to spend two years strapped to a board to prevent curvature of the spine. Sargent captures the tension of her fiercely disciplined emotional life by portraying her with the face of a Madonna, and tightly locked hands and arms.
Of course, Kate Middleton’s family-life was nothing like Bessie’s. And unlike Sargent who had to get under the skin of his subject to paint her, www.examiner.com/article/capturing-personas-paintEmsley had only to portray her Kate straightaway and capture her happy self.