I studied the portrait in the Gallery for some time - and sat and sketched it as I find that a really good way of really looking hard at a portrait.
The first image you see on this post is a jpeg file sent to me by Paul Emsley himself which has more colour and much less pallor and dark shadows than some of the reproductions I've seen published in the last few days. I also have a copy of the high-res print version of the official NPG version. Plus the original reference photo has been posted on an art forum - which also makes for an interesting comparison. So here's how they all vary from what I saw in the gallery.
Essentially both the Emsley and NPG photos are darker than the painting. Her head in the painting is not seen floating in the dark! Both also lose some of the definition in the hair which I could see clearly while sat opposite it doing my sketch. Both make the background too dark. Coloration is better in the Emsley photo and closer to the original. The NPG makes some of the shadow areas seem much more marked and bluish than they are in reality. Interestingly the reference photo shows a dark area under the eyes which is less marked in both photos - and the painting!
This is a summary of the changes I made using Photoshop. I could see the shirt much more clearly than in the photos. I kept the smoothness of the tonal transitions on the face but lightened the flesh colour. There are no impasto sparkling highlights (I checked!) and I've not introduced any. I avoided changes which introduced blue shadow areas where I saw none. The darks which frame the face remain at the same intensity as in the painting. The bluish tinge to the dark behind her head is now more obvious. Lightening it also seems to have made it lighter on the left which is what I remember seeing in the gallery. Overall, in my view, the painting now appears much less harsh than some of the reproductions - as indeed it is "in real life".
Now - all you have to remember is that what it looks like on your screen is totally down to the quality and colour accuracy of your screen!
|Paul Emsley's photograph - lightened by me based on my viewing/sketch of the portrait|
I think it's a fine portrait - if you like this level of realism and heads which are larger than life. I'm a fan of more painterly interpretations and I don't tend to like "big heads". In my view, one can get too caught up in the detail and miss the overall impact.
However my preferences are irrelevant for the purposes of commenting on the painting.
If it's the client's choice to have a "big head" than Paul Emsley does some very fine ones. I don't think this is his best painting - and I think maybe he does men rather better than women e.g. I think his rendition of Nelson Mandela is absolutely stunning. That said I still think it's a fine portrait painting
The size (1.5 times life size) and the format are both typical of Emsley. He also doesn't set out to flatter - he paints what he sees - which makes him a good choice for somebody wanting a painting of what they actually look like. Not quite the 'warts and all' but not far off. The Duchess was apparently very keen to have a portrait which represented her as a real person - her natural self - rather than something which spoke of her formal life, of bling and looking her best. I think she got what she wanted - she certainly seems pleased with it.
I personally find the painting very restrained. It's not exciting, there is no bling or razzle dazzle 'princess' about it. It also grows on you as you look at it and I think this is a painting which will develop a good reputation over time - not least because of her 'Mona Lisa' smile!
Waldemar Januszczak said he was "disappointed" by the portrait because the Duchess' "eyes don't sparkle". I have news for Waldemar - most people have eyes which don't sparkle. I've become convinced over the years that the "sparkle" is an invention of portrait artists who want you to look at their paintings!
- The nature of the comment you make says far more about you than it does about the portrait!
- More artists than I would have thought possible are :
- prepared to believe that a photographic reproduction is completely accurate(!) and then comment accordingly
- capable of being mean-spirited towards a fellow artist.
- Never let a good portrait get in the way of a good story.
- Newspapers like a good story which make people buy their papers and look at their websites
- Art critics can get very carried away with their metaphors at times - particularly those who don't take time out to visit a portrait
- For a painting to succeed with the public, any painting needs to measure up to the public's concept of what she should look like. Most of the public seem to want the Duchess to look like she does in the photographs - that way they know she's real. They see "pretty and always smiling" in the photos and they want "pretty and always smiling" in the painted portraits - especially if they also have a photographic degree of realism!
- Most of the public seem to have no idea that she is now 31 years of age. In my view, their comments about ageing are much more a product of a photo not a painting.
- Comments about features are almost entirely linked to "how things should be" not "how things are". Most of them have never noticed that she is genetically endowed with permanent bags under her eyes or a very strong chin or cheeks which have a tendency to pouch. They appear to have no idea they are criticising how the Princess looks in real life not how the artist has chosen to portray her.
- Most of them are happy to be carried away by the manufactured hysteria about the royals which the media generated.
- this article by a photographer using classical portrait paintings to explain the notion - Want to Shoot a Portrait of Substance? Leave Out the Smiling!
- another article by a photographer - this time "Smile!": A Polemic on Fine Art Portraiture
- This is a discussion of The Question of the Smile
- This is an extensive and well referenced article by an art blogger To paint smiles or not to paint smiles: Where do you stand?
- while this Guardian article explains the history behind the practice was all about dentistry! Smile please: how an 18th century portrait gave birth to the power grin
HRH The Duchess of Cambridge by Paul Emsley is on display now as part of the Contemporary Collections in the Lerner Galleries, Room 36, Ground Floor, National Portrait Gallery, Admission free