A portrait of Kate Middleton (the artist formerly known as)
The first official painting of the Duchess of Cambridge was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery (of which Duchess Kate is a patron) on Friday and, quite frankly, it feels sarcastic.
My own experience of the artist formerly known as Kate Middleton has been a peculiar one. I used to work on a fashion and beauty website and Kate was big business. Judging by page views a large swathe of the nation was fascinated by her. Judging by reader comments another mob were fascinated (or perhaps merely outraged) by the fascination. Regardless, a story about Kate was a source of site traffic. As such I learned to scrutinise every picture of her that came my way. How was her hair? Was she wearing those birthday earrings? Which of her mother’s several-seasons-old high end high street dresses might she have donned? Was there anything – anything at all – remotely interesting that I could put into words to adorn this picture?
I became fascinated by the fascination with the fascination.
It felt like the blanker the Kate canvas the better for the royal family. She became some kind of royal trawler net gathering generic goodwill towards “a nice young couple in love”. The fewer opinions she offered, the more easily she could absorb almost any projection of personality by others. As a result I have devoted hours of my life and page after page of vocabulary to this woman without ever encountering a sense of familiarity. I know her face, I know her wardrobe, her family, and her comings and goings. The rest – the parts that form a working identity and a full person – is silence.
The reason to spend so long underlining this peculiar absence of person is because of this portrait. Would the painter, Paul Emsley, not have encountered the same difficulties I did in engaging with this strangely absent public person? Would he attempt to do something to round out that identity (no matter how spuriously)? I must confess that with the royal family’s PR machine fully involved, Kate even more cautious since those topless pictures surfaced, and the National Portrait Gallery not likely to do anything to irk their most photographed patron I wasn’t expecting anything beyond flattering verisimilitude.
But the portrait unveiled is a curious thing. Soft of focus, pursed of lip, the Duchess stares out from her nest of sausage curls like she’s been printed on some commemorative plate. I found myself indulging my own frustrations as I asked, “Was the dewy glow a nod to the weird sentimentality which attached itself like societal dust to this woman and her marriage? Was the the commemorative plate-ness a sly acknowledgement of our obsession with the commodification of celebrity? Was the tenseness in the lips a knowing joke about the fact this woman will never say anything off-message?”
Apparently Emsley is a monarchist and honoured by the commission so it’s unlikely to be anything but sincere. It’s also not exactly earthshaking news that a royal portraitist has indulged in flattery or that a commissioned work has skimmed anything remotely contentious from the depiction of its subject. Still, having entertained hopes that the intention could have been more impish in nature I find myself once again disappointed. It’s just one more picture of Kate to add to the ever expanding pile.