So I'm a creature of habit. I go to the same grocery store most of the time, roughly at the same times of day, and I go through the same checkout clerk's line because I like chatting with her—she's a middle-aged black lady named Angela with a sardonic attitude and a lot of wisdom.
Yesterday, just trying to make conversation, I happened to mention to Angela that the tabloids must go out of their way to find ugly pictures of celebrities. One tabloid I saw in the checkout line managed to find a bad picture of the Duchess of Cambridge to put on its cover—which takes some doing, because in the opinion of most of the world she is one good-looking princess, even as princesses go.
So what happens then? By coincidence, I came home to watch the news, which included the breaking "human interest" story about the official portrait of Kate...in which she's looking even worse than in the offending tabloid cover at the grocery store!
It makes me laugh, it's so bad. The portrait, by Paul Emsley, makes her look like a lizard. Or like she's doing a bad impression of Bruce Willis's smirk.
So how do you make a young woman that pretty look so...not? There's a good explanation, I think.
Let's face it—portrait painters don't work from life these days, especially with busy and entitled* subjects. They work from photographs. The official portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge, like most portrait paintings, is a painting of a photograph**.
The problem? Whoever picked the photo Mr. Emsley worked from just picked a bad shot. That's my take. Any portrait photographer worth his or her salt wouldn't have included that one in the proof package.
It might have been the Duchess herself who chose it, because she's reportedly pleased with the portrait. (Although another possible explanation for that is that she's as appalled by the portrait as the rest of the British public but just very good at her job, which is to remain poised and gracious in public no matter what. Even so, that she wasn't shocked by the unveiling would seem to indicate that she'd seen the image before.)
My opinion is probably predictable. Despite that one tabloid cover at the local Pick'n'Save, the Duchess looks better in almost every photograph I've ever seen of her than she does in that painting. They should have just picked a good portrait photographer to do her portrait. Annie Leibovitz or Dan Winters would have done a better job.
...Or Jane Bown, if the photographer needs to be British.
Ms. Bown might not be working much any more, though, as I believe she's getting close to 90 (come to think of it, didn't she retire a few years back?).
I don't know—who are the best British portrait photographers working today?
**And, it's wise to remember, what you see here is a small JPEG of a photograph of a large painting.
UPDATE 10 p.m.: You have to admit I called it. Here's the painter working from the photograph chosen by the subject herself.
Thanks to Huw for this (from the Mail Online).
ADDENDUM Monday noon: Several commenters have noted that the painter had two sittings with the princess, so the painting wasn't completely done from photographs. I doubt that very much. "Sittings" in the modern painted-portrait industry aren't actual sittings where the portraitist works from life—they're really just brief meet-and-greets so the parties can get acquainted and, more importantly, so the pretense of longstanding artistic convention can be nominally observed. I doubt the "sittings" in this case were anything more than pure pro-forma, for the sake of appearances mainly.
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A book of interest today:
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Rodolfo Canet: "I totally agree with you, Mike, but I'm usually so absorbed with photography that when I saw the news I believe it was a photoshopped image, not a painting.
"This brings to my mind the recent affair we had in Spain with the official photographs of our princess (a former presenter of our national TV news, by the way) on her 40th birthday. The shooting was performed by Cristina García Rodero, one of the most awarded photographers in my country, but who specializes in reportage not portraits (she's a Magnum member). Contrary to expectations, the photographs ended up being something rather lame, more adequate for popular magazines than to García Rodero's porfolio, to the chagrin of Spanish photography lovers.
"If anyone is interested, the images can be easily Googled with the terms 'Letizia fotos 40 cumpleaños' and her usual work can be seen at her Magnum page."
Mike replies: I like this picture of your princess. The soft earthen colors, the interesting way the man behind her confuses with and echoes her outline, the slash of darkness at the left, her hand on the door, and her flattened reflection. Very nice. Any idea whose photo it is? I found it just now when Googling her as per your instruction.
Manuel (partial comment): "Suddenly Lucian Freud's infamous portrait of Queen Elizabeth II starts to look good."
David Brookes: "The BBC report yesterday said that he started with a serious expression and then tried to change it—which is probably why the eyes and mouth do not seem to match. I suspect that this painting will be quietly 'lost' once the initial interest has died down. Lady Churchill destroyed Graham Sutherland's portrait of Sir Winston, so there are precedents in the higher echelons of British society!"
Jfg: "Actually, this is a small JPEG of a photograph of a large painting of a print of a (most likely) digital photograph that had (most likely) been digitally retouched. Five degrees of separation?"
dwig: "Well, there are two things at work in the portrait that are part of the issue: 1.) The closed-mouth smile—this is not part of the public's image of the Duchess. I did a quick flip though the images Google produced and probably no more than 1% showed her with any form of closed-mouth expression, much less lacking a smile. 2.) The eyebrows—this is to me a major error in the portrait and can't be judged an 'interpretation.' The Duchess's eyebrows are very level. The portrait tilts them in a manner generally associated with characterizations of mean and/or evil faces.
"I also feel the cheeks and facial lines don't go with the relaxed smile. The cheeks that the Duchess is known for show when she smiles with her usual 'bright' open lips smile and seem exagerated in the portrait whereas the face is otherwise in a relaxed gentle state."
John Hall: "I think history will judge you wrong Mike. The longer I look at this portrait the better I like it."
Mike replies: Only if history forgets what she actually looked like.
Mandeno Moments: "It doesn't even look like Kate, because the distances between the various landmarks are incorrect. E.g., the vertical distance between her lips and her eyes is far too great. The hair is all right, and the rest is all wrong."
Jimmy Reina: "I don't think the photographer needs to be British. Last year, there was an interesting New Yorker article about Thomas Struth, the German photographer who took the current portrait of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. It was a very original image-formal, but not stiff in any way."
Mike replies: Interesting article.
richardplondon (partial comment): "It's very interesting to compare the Lucien Freud portrait against this new one. Freud's rigorous, exhaustive (exhausting) process depends on working and re-working by making constant fresh reference to reality—acknowledging that even seeing what reality is is problematic and endless in nature."