Kate-official-portrait.jpg

Princess Kate, Take Note: George W. Bush Might Be Available

You probably caught wind last month of the hullabaloo concerning the official portrait of Princess Catherine, wife of Prince William and eventual queen consort. I was horrified by the portrait, and I’m not even English. Whether you’re a monarchy fan or not, it’s hard to deny that Kate possesses one of the most reliably cheerful and lovely countenances of modern times. In the portrait, she’s in a black, featureless room, she’s pasty and washed out, she’s got bags under her eyes, her smile is closed and pinched, and she’s got, believe it or not, incipient jowls. Is this some ironic illustration of English modesty? How the artist managed to screw up this gig is a mystery, but the royals are too polite to complain, so that’s that, it seems. 

bush-self-portrait.jpgBut is it? It appears, according to the haul from the recent hacking of the Bush family’s e-mail accounts, that Bush 43 is a painter. I like these paintings, and it seems I’m not alone. Here’s Vanity Fair’s Bruce Handy:

I like him as an artist. For amateur works, these are well done and surprisingly sophisticated, even enigmatic. My colleague Juli Weiner aptly notes a resemblance to the work of Alex Katz. I’d go further and say that, whatever Bush cedes to Katz in terms of technique and composition, he gains in mystery and psychological complexity.

And here’s New York Magazine‘s Jerry Saltz:

I love these two bather paintings. They are “simple” and “awkward,” but in wonderful, unself-conscious, intense ways. They show someone doing the best he can with almost no natural gifts — except the desire to do this. The reclusion and seclusiveness of the pictures evoke the quietude (though not the insight, quality, or genius) of certain Chardin still lifes.

Kate, please believe me when I tell you that everybody hates your new official portrait. Why not give 43 a call? He’s got the time, and he’s an up-and-comer. He might need to have some running water in the frame somewhere, but he’s not going to give you jowls. Give it some thought.

[PS: This gives us a good excuse to revisit George and Laura Bush's delightful visit to the Obama White House to unveil their own official portraits. George's comments begin at 11:30.]

  1. Israel P.
    Judith Levy, Ed.

    [PS: This gives us a good excuse to revisit George and Laura Bush's delightful visit to the Obama White House to unveil their own official portraits. George's comments begin at 11:30.] · · 22 minutes ago

    I’m thinking about some of the horrible and graceless things that the Os will say when their time comes.

  2. Percival

    Great art speaks to the viewer.

    What Kate’s official portrait says to me is: “when no one is watching, I eat babies.”

    The White House has just announced that “up at Camp David, we do self-portraiture all the time.”

  3. Western Chauvinist

    It’s easy to criticize and I’m not terribly observant, but is it customary to not show teeth when one is posing for a portrait? Is this something reserved for the monarchy or are most portraits painted toothless (paging EJ Hill!)?

    Still, is it necessary for the expression to look like one has just bitten into a lemon? The Sour Mona Lisa.

  4. Karen

    The problems with Kate’s portrait are as much about technique and process as likeness. What a fussy, over-worked mess. Looks like the painter relied too much on photo references than sittings. Not much confidence in the mark, either. As to the Bush work, I liked what the American Visionary Art Museum had to say when asked about his work, which was that they didn’t have an opinion, because the works were hacked and shown without permission, essentially stolen. I’m glad there’s one arts institution out there that has some integrity.

  5. Group Captain Mandrake

    I think it’s ok, and I understand that the Duke and Duchess both like it. 

    You may remember a similar thing happened with Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Winston Churchill, only in that case Churchill’s wife hated it so much that she eventually destroyed it. 

    Churchill himself said, “It makes me look half-witted, which I ain’t.”  He also said of the portrait, “How do they paint one today?  Sitting on a lavatory!  Here sits an old man on his stool, pressing and pressing.”

    Churchill.jpg

  6. Karen

    WC – Ideally, a portrait is painted from life, which requires long sittings. Asking a subject to hold a toothy grin for a long time would be nearly impossible and the result would look unnatural. The intention appears to be Kate with a relaxed, slight smile, but he exaggerated her features, too much value contrast in the subtle creases and folds around the mouth. The artist appears to have poor command of color mixing and understanding of skin tone. The way the portrait was photographed might make a difference as well. It might look more flattering and not so washed out in person.

  7. Group Captain Mandrake

    By the way, Kate’s official title is Her Royal Highness Princess William Arthur Philip Louis, Duchess of Cambridge, Countess of Strathearn, Baroness Carrickfergus.

  8. Kenneth Gauck

    Keep in mind that any royal portrait has to sit along side the Holbeins, the van Dycks, and the Knellers. A grisaille background (a decorative background in a single color) in black is not uncommon, especially in the Dutch school from whence so many English court painters drew their style from. We are now accustomed to photography, which is, today, more spontaneous and exuberant, is often lit with diffuse, even lighting, and creates a whole different impression than the more somber and realistic style of painting, which strives to capture something entirely different than what we expect from a photograph. This portrait looks very much like a portrait, which I think is the point for a traditional monarchy that still represents itself with a Tudor crown.

  9. tabula rasa

    I was going to compare it to the infamous Churchill portrait, but Group Captain Mandrake got there first.

    I call the portrait of Kate ( Her Royal Highness Princess William Arthur Philip Louis, Duchess of Cambridge, Countess of Strathearn, Baroness Carrickfergus) mundane and mediocre as opposed to positively bad.  It certainly misses the essence of the subject (which, to me, seems the purpose).  Or is England in such straits the Royal Family has to walk around in badly-lit rooms?

    Surely England still has some artists who can paint a decent portrait.

  10. Dean Murphy

    I saw your title and thought “What happened to Laura?”

  11. EJHill

    I find the idea of sitting for a painting in the 21st Century a bit pompous, really. Even for “royalty.”

    Worse yet, all of our cabinet secretaries get it done. What justifies that expense?

    As for Kate’s picture, I thought it looked like the artist shortchanged her a bit. For the most part the proportions are good, but he kind of short changed her on the length of her face.

    Catherine.jpg

  12. Group Captain Mandrake

    I’d like to see a sculpture of the Duchess by Alexander Stoddart.   There was a video of this interview which was worth watching, particularly for Stoddart’s comments on creativity and modernism.