Brief history of controversial royal portraits

Members of the royal family often pose for portraits.

And even when they don’t, artists paint them anyway.

Some of these portraits have drawn almost unanimous praise and have stood the test of time, captivating viewers of several generations.

Others have sparked mixed reactions, scandal or controversy.

With some works, critics’ objections were that the royals appeared too somber, too naked, or, in the case of the king’s final portrait, Charles IIItoo red.

In the painting presented on Tuesday, Carlos appears wrapped in a cloud of crimson, deep pink and fuchsia.

The artist, Jonathan Yeo, declared to The New York Times in an interview last month that he got to know his sitter in four sessions, which began in 2021, when Charles was still Prince of Wales, and continued after the coronation in May last year.

“Age and experience suited him,” Yeo said.

“His countenance definitely changed after becoming king.”

“Life and death, bloodlines and damask. Wonderful,” Jonathan Foyle, a British academic, wrote on social media.

But not everyone was so impressed.

One social media user said the king looked in the painting like he was “burning in hell.”

Others compared the work to the possessed portrait from the Ghostbusters 2from 1989, possessed by the ghost of a medieval tyrant.

“Has a portrait of a blue-blooded British monarch ever been so pink?” wrote Laura Freeman, chief art critic for The Times of London.

Although he praised the face (“wonderfully done”), saying Yeo deserved a knighthood for it, he added:

“and he deserves to be taken to the Tower at the bottom, to await a grisly execution.”

The art critic of Daily TelegraphAlastair Sooke, noted that “painting a monarch is one of the most difficult artistic tasks” and concluded that one thing seemed certain: the portrait “will be remembered for its fluorescence”.

Here are other royal portraits, painted with less cheerful palettes, but in their own way, just as surprising or controversial.

Kate Middleton: ‘Vampire’

A portrait of Catherine, Princess of Wales, by Paul Emsley at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2013. Photo Sang Tan/Associated Press

While some described the first official portrait of the then Duchess of Cambridge as natural and humane, the reception of the soft, diaphanous 2012 painting by Paul Emsley of Kate Middleton —now Catherine, Princess of Wales—was marked by harsh criticism.

Charlotte Higgins, cultural editor of Guardiansaid it was like “something unpleasant about the franchise Twilight”, alluding to the melancholic romantic vampire films.

He criticized the “vampiric and malevolent look under the heavy eyelids” of the duchess, which gave the portrait a “sepulchral gloom.”

That was not the worst criticism the portrait received.

Michael Glover, of The Independentdescribed the portrait as “catastrophic”.

According to British VogueEmsley said that the attacks were so unpleasant at first that “there was a point at which I myself doubted that the portrait of the duchess was any good.”

But British newspapers quoted Kate as telling the artist that she found the portrait “incredible. Absolutely great”.

Queen Elizabeth II: ‘Beheaded’

Justin Mortimer with his portrait of Queen Elizabeth II at the Blue Gallery in London in 1998. Photo Fiona Hanson/Press Association, via Alamy

“The queen has already been beheaded, although on canvas, by her last portraitist,” wrote the BBC when Justin Mortimer painted Queen Elizabeth II on a yellow background with her head floating away from her body.

The artist, who was 27 when the Royal Society of Arts commissioned the portrait after winning the Society’s portrait prize National Portrait Gallery In 1991, he told the BBC that he had intended the painting to be “fresh and fun.”

Some loved it, but many Brits didn’t get the joke.

“’Foolish’ artist cuts off the queen’s head,” he wrote TheDailyMail.

Mortimer told The New York Times that after the Queen sat for him, “I ended up basically removing her collar” to be “naughty.”

“I knew people would come up with ideas, like ‘Cut off his head!’” he said.

“I didn’t come in as a raging Republican. “I just wanted to suggest this vein of unease about the royal family at the time.”

Prince Philip: shirtless wise man

Portrait of Prince Philip by Stuart Pearson Wright.Photo Kimberly White/ReutersPortrait of Prince Philip by Stuart Pearson Wright.Photo Kimberly White/Reuters

In a 2003 portrait by Stuart Pearson Wright, Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, appears bare-chested, with a bluefly on one shoulder and a watercress sprout growing from his index finger.

The painting was initially commissioned by the Royal Society of Arts to honor Philipits president, who agreed to pose, but the final result was considered “inappropriate,” according to what the artist told the BBC.

You were asked to create a smaller version focusing only on the prince’s face, which is now on display at the Royal Society of Arts.

Pearson Wright told the BBC that when he showed the prince the work in progress and asked him if he thought it looked like him, Philip told him:

The portrait is titled “Homo sapiens, Lepidium sativum and Calliphora vomitoria”: wise man, watercress and bluefly.

The prince did not undress during the process, Wright told The Guardian, explaining that he had based the hairy chest on that of an older man in east London.

Queen Victoria: ‘Sexy’

A portrait of Queen Victoria from 1843 by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Photo Royal Collection TrustA portrait of Queen Victoria from 1843 by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Photo Royal Collection Trust

The word “Victorian” is often used as a synonym for prudishness and modesty, but in an 1843 portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, the queen is far from discreet.

In the oil painting, a lock of Victoria’s hair falls abundantly over her bare shoulder as she leans against a red cushion, gazing into the distance with her mouth slightly open.

Prince Albert, Victoria’s husband, kept the painting in his private desk at Windsor Castle until his death, and the portrait was considered very overtly sexual to be shown to the public until 1977, according to The Telegraph.

The Daily Mail described the portrait, which Victoria gave to Alberto as a surprise on his 24th birthday, as a “sexy painting.”

The Royal Collection Trust, which manages the royal art collection, considers it “seductive” and says it was Albert’s favorite portrait of Victoria.

“I felt very happy and proud to have found something that gave him so much pleasure,” Victoria wrote in her diary.

King Henry VIII: ‘Icon of codpieces’

A portrait of King Henry VIII, believed to be a copy of a work by Hans Holbein the Younger, in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, England.Photo CorbisA portrait of King Henry VIII, believed to be a copy of a work by Hans Holbein the Younger, in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, England.Photo Corbis

In the 1530s, Hans Holbein the Young Man painted a majestic portrait of Henry VIII in which the monarch dominates his surroundings, with his feet apart and his body covered in furs and golden fabrics.

The painting, now lost, was widely copied in its time and is considered a masterpiece of royal iconography.

But there is one detail that catches the attention of modern observers.

Among all the trappings and symbols of greatness, the padded fly by Enrique seems designed to capture the viewer’s attention.

Codpieces, pieces of cloth that Renaissance men wore over the crotch, sometimes decorated with silk, velvet and ribbons, initially served a protective function, but were exaggerated in a game of superiority, according to BBC History Magazine.

“What better way to assert your masculinity than by having a powerful fly protrude from the center of your portrait like a three-dimensional object?” said Evan Puschak, art and culture critic.

“Henry VIII remains the icon of codpieces,” he wrote. The New Yorker.

Emma Bubola is a Times journalist based in London, covering news across Europe and around the world.

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