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Portrait of Princess Kate is drawing backlash. Is it really that bad?

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Portrait of Princess Kate is drawing backlash. Is it really that bad?

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The artist behind a new, much debated portrait of Catherine, Princess of Wales, probably knew she was wading into touchy territory when she took up a commission to paint one of the most closely watched people on the planet. In an interview with Tatler magazine, which commissioned the portrait for its July cover, artist Hannah Uzor noted that there are tens of thousands of photos of Princess Kate in the Getty Images archive, and before painting her, she intended to study as many as possible.

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“I spent a lot of time looking at her, looking at her pictures, watching videos of her, seeing her with her family, seeing her diplomatic visits, seeing her when she’s rowing or visiting children at hospice,” the artist, who did not have access to the princess during the process, reflected in a video. Her portraits aim to capture “the soul of the person,” Uzor said.

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But for many, the portrait resulting from that close study depicted neither the princess’s soul, nor even her physical characteristics. In response to the painting — showing a calm-looking figure in a fluid white gown against a buoyant blue backdrop — several commenters asked, “Who is this?”

“The painting is beautiful but does not look like the princess,” one noted.

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Others were more direct in their criticism, calling the piece “an insult” and “terrible.”

The royal family has not spoken publicly about the work and the artist did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Tatler

As a result of digital video and photography, the public has never been more intimately familiar with what public figures look like, so when a portrait of a person as globally famous as Catherine is released, the artist is invariably put in the hot seat. Uzor’s portrait comes just days after a portrait of King Charles III drew its own round of criticism. It also recalls public fury at Amy Sherald’s Michelle Obama portrait in 2018, which viewers similarly argued did not look like her.

But with so much public critique centred on resemblance, it’s worth asking if likeness is the right metric for evaluating portraiture. When we have seemingly endless photographic representations of people such as the princess, some say portraits can — and even should — have wider aspirations.

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“Portraiture can be representational or abstract. There are no boundaries or limits,” Bree Pickering, the director of the National Portrait Gallery of Australia, said in an email. “Likeness is often something that audiences look for, but as we’ve seen recently, it can be the conversation that happens around the artwork that tells us the most about the times we live in.”

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Pickering also notes that “portraiture shares a story from an artist’s point of view,” meaning that it tells viewers about the subject — but can also reveal the “broader social context in which it was created.”

Lisa Mansfield, an art historian who studies portraiture at the University of Adelaide, draws a parallel between Uzor’s portrait and Paul Emsley’s official portrait of the then-Duchess of Cambridge, “which was unveiled in 2013 to a disparaging chorus of disapproval.”

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Such clashes between “artistic intention and audience perception reveal the disconnect between what a portrait is and what the world at large thinks a portrait of a princess should look like,” Mansfield wrote in an email, adding that in an age of social media and selfies, it’s “easy to overlook that a portrait is fundamentally a work of artful fiction” and “not a facsimile of the face or body.”

Contemporary artists have long taken creative liberties in depicting leaders. At the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, a rendering of John F. Kennedy by Elaine de Kooning is a blur of expressive green and yellows that add up to a flicker of a person, the result of the artist’s style and her subject’s restlessness during sittings. After his assassination, the artist, who painted JFK several times, reflected: “President Kennedy was never still. He slipped by us.”

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Cherine Fahd, an artist and professor of visual communication at the University of Technology Sydney, wrote in an email that when looking at the Princess Kate portrait, questions like “Does the portrait provoke dialogue?” and “Does it reflect or challenge societal contexts?” are “better than ‘Does it look her?’”

Uzor, a Zambia-born British artist, describes her practice as “driven by her interest in history, particularly, diasporic culture and its manifestation in personal and public memory” in a bio on her website. Her work has engaged with race-related deaths in Britain since the coronation of the Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and she’s painted Black figures who have been overlooked by history, most notably Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, Sarah Forbes Bonetta.

In the Tatler interview, Uzor said her portraits are “made up of layers of a personality, constructed from everything I can find about them.”

Fahd said that, looking at the portrait of Catherine, it’s more interesting to focus on “how a woman of colour, as the artist, directs her gaze upon a monarch.”

“Historically, people of colour have been objects of anthropological examination by the colonial and imperial subjects but here, the roles are reversed,” she said.

Royal portraits “are a trope,” she added, but “this artist seems to consciously reject that trope.”

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