Kate Middleton’s First Official Painting Unveiled. What Do You Think?

Initial reaction has not been kind.

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After keeping a low profile since news of her pregnancy reverberated around the world, Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton emerged — along with her husband Prince William and several family members — for an early morning outing Friday to London’s National Portrait Gallery.

The reason: to witness the unveiling of her first official portrait, HRH The Duchess of Cambridge, by the Glasgow-born, South African-raised artist Paul Emsley. “I thought it was brilliant,” Duchess Kate said of the artwork. But she may be in the minority.


National Portrait Gallery / Handout / Reuters

“HRH The Duchess of Cambridge” by Glasgow-born artist Paul Emsley, is seen in the National Portrait Gallery in London January 11, 2013.

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The Times of London’s art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, called Emsley’s work “pretty ordinary … He made her look older than she is and her eyes don’t sparkle in the way that they do and there’s something rather dour about the face.” Robin Simon, editor of the British Art Journal and critic for the Daily Mail, was similarly unimpressed: “Fortunately, the Duchess of Cambridge looks nothing like this in real life. I’m really sad to say this is a rotten portrait.” And David Lee, former editor of Art Review magazine and founder of satirical art magazine The Jackdaw, went for the jugular:

This is the most bland and predictable royal portrait in living memory. It is the sort of safe, uncomplicated, pedestrian image one might expect to see in a High Street photographer’s window. It looks as if the painter asked the subject to ‘Say cheese!’ and then told her to scram and buy some clothes while he painted the photograph.

Emsley worked on the painting for several months, using his technique of building thin layers of oil and glazes on canvas — although given that response, he may be wishing he’d done something else. Still, he managed to get Middleton to sit for him twice (Emsley also used some photographs he took of the Duchess as part of the process). “If you are working with someone who has whose face is just a lovely face, it’s harder to find something in the portrait that gives it some sort of gravitas,” he told TIME’s sister publication, People. “In this case I’ve tried to do that with the smile and the dimples and the shadows around the face.”

The Duchess, who studied art history at St. Andrews University, was directly involved in the selection of Emsley, along with the National Portrait Gallery’s director, Sandy Nairne. Emsley’s other subjects have included the former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and the author V. S. Naipaul. Back in 2007 he even won the BP Portrait Award for his depiction of fellow artist Michael Simpson. Judging by the reaction so far, however, he may not be winning anything for this latest work.

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