That Travesty of a Portrait of the Very Pretty Duchess of Cambridge
Joseph McKenzie of Taki's Magazine concludes that portraitist "Paul Emsley can give us only photographic flesh, a surface with nothing behind it but modernism’s contempt and scorn for life," in his spirited indictment of that "overblown mug shot" and all for which it stands — A Royal Disaster on Canvas. He begins:
- Like all English royals who ever lived, Kate Middleton is only as handsome as nature made her—no more, no less. The fact that she has wrinkles under her eyes, that her nose flattens crudely into her forehead, that her chin lacks refinement, that she can only produce a wry smile, and that she is decidedly less than “stunning” has nothing to do with the catastrophic failure of Paul Emsley’s official portrait of her.
In the hands of a competent painter, such attributes would have been exploited as elements of charm, something the Duchess of Cambridge possesses in abundance.
The portrait’s real problem stems from a false modernist concept of realism. Like most of today’s academic realists, Emsley has reduced portraiture to the dead mechanics of the photocopier, the artist’s brush to a toner cartridge. Today’s realist painters are soulless machines, capable of reproducing flesh and wrinkles and strands of hair, but utterly powerless to seize a subject’s essence.
Dead realism and abstraction both turn their backs on reality’s fullness.
Instead of a portrait, Emsley has produced an overblown mug shot. All mug shots are unflattering because they have nothing to do with the human soul’s depths. Kate Middleton is more than the sum of her facial attributes glacially rendered by an uninspired technician’s cold hand.
Art’s spirit must always have priority over vapid displays of forensic draftsmanship, however impressive these may be to our world of crass sensationalism.
Official portraitists should look to the Grand Siècle for inspiration because French painters of the time still believed in the human soul’s existence and immortality. Today’s atheist-materialists reduce human beings to a genetic compound, brute molecular matter and nothing more. Emsley’s portrait is just that: a brutality. In this sense, it mirrors our dismal age far more than it reflects his royal subject.