On Paul Emsley’s studio wall hangs an alternative version of the most famous portrait of one of the most famous women in the world. In it, the Duchess of Cambridge, the royal formerly known as Kate Middleton, appears bright-eyed and young, refreshed, even playful.
It is, perhaps, the antithesis of its larger fraternal twin, the first official portrait of the 31-year-old duchess that, when unveiled two weeks ago, touched off nearly universal indignation. Netizens, royalty junkies and art critics — armchair and otherwise — savaged the portrait. Where Emsley saw mystery, his attackers saw a woman aged beyond her years. Where he saw natural beauty, they saw bags under her eyes. Where he saw regal bearing, they saw the duchess’s Picture of Dorian Gray.
“Ghastly . . . an out and out disaster,” stung the British Art Journal.
“The cheeks incline towards the hamsterish,” declared the Independent.
Like “something unpleasant from the ‘Twilight’ franchise,” piled on the Guardian.
As Emsley attempts to process the full power of one work to alter an artist’s life in the age of instant media, a question swirled in his head. Should he have done the portrait differently? To answer it, he picked up a piece of black chalk a few days ago and began cathartically sketching another work. This time, it was the way the duchess’s devoted followers so often see her in glossy magazines and airbrushed photos. Flawless. Glamorous. The fairy-tale beauty who bagged a prince.
But a funny thing happened as he did the sketch. The self-doubt of a man who is his own worst critic began to fade, replaced with a growing certainty that the canvas hanging in London’s National Portrait Gallery is not only the better version, but maybe even the masterwork of his career.
Emsley showed the smaller, black-and-white alternative version to a visitor, but he would not allow it to be photographed. He said he intends to keep it for private purposes at his studio.
“There’s a quotation an American friend of mine, the wife of an American artist, sent me in support,” Emsley said in a four-hour interview, his most extensive since going into seclusion after the portrait’s rough reception. “When Picasso was told his portrait of Gertrude Stein did not look like her, his response was, ‘It will.’ People will become acclimatized over time to something which is not something that they were expecting."
‘Natural, not official, self’
On a chilly February day in this picturesque hamlet 83 miles west of London, Emsley received a fateful e-mail at his cottagelike home nestled on a hillside. It was from Britain’s venerable National Portrait Gallery, which had honored Emsley’s work with one of this nation’s highest art awards in 2007. Would he, the gallery asked, like to be shortlisted for a top-secret project — the first official portrait of the duchess?
Would he, indeed. Emsley, 65, who was born in Glasgow and grew up in South Africa, had worked with famous subjects before, and he jumped at a chance to paint the duchess. He had studied advertising in his youth, moving from illustrations into professional painting, mostly of animals, nature and, of course, people. Portraying faces as “moving landscapes,” he rose in renown after moving back to Britain in the late 1990s. He returned briefly to South Africa to paint a haunting portrait of Nelson Mandela and won wide praise for his painting of the author V.S. Naipaul.
In March, when he first met the duchess at the National Portrait Gallery off Trafalgar Square as one of four finalists for the commission, his pitch was a contemporary portrayal using traditional techniques. “I wanted to do something which had some sort of a sense of mystery, of presence, of stillness about it.”
The pitch worked. Three days later, he had the job. The duchess arrived at his home for her first sitting in May. For more than six hours, he photographed her in various grades of natural light, a process complicated by the day’s torrential rain. Another sitting several weeks later at London’s Kensington Palace finally yielded the shot Emsley would use in his studio to paint her portrait. In it, the duchess, who had told Emsley she wanted to be seen as her “natural, not official, self,” looked precisely that: light makeup, wind-blown hair, slightly mischievous smile.
In his small studio, he labored over the portrait for four months, substantially longer than normal. The gallery’s director, Sandy Nairne, encouraged him to give the duchess a grin, a challenge that on canvas can leave subjects appearing locked in a perpetual grimace. A moment of truth came a month later, when the finished work was presented to the duchess at a private viewing in the National Portrait Gallery. Emsley, who was not present for the viewing, said he beamed when he heard the duchess was delighted.