Magazine article The Spectator

Portraits Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Magazine article The Spectator

Portraits Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Article excerpt

'Everybody faces rejection, ' the portrait artist Aaron Shikler said. He should know, having had three official White House portraits of former President Ronald Reagan rejected - one was too large, one was too casual and one 'they just didn't like it'. The commission finally was given to a different artist.

Don't feel too sorry for him. His posthumous portrait of President John F. Kennedy hangs in the White House along with those of First Ladies Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan, and he has also painted likenesses of US senators, Supreme Court Justices, cabinet officers, socialites and people who just had a lot of money.

Still, fame and past successes don't make one immune from criticism. Just ask Paul Emsley, whose portraits of Nelson Mandela and V.S. Naipaul hang in London's National Portrait Gallery. His recently unveiled portrait of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, which is also on display in the NPG, has been the object of withering scorn by critics and others on both sides of the Atlantic. One writer referred to the portrait's 'sepulchral gloom', while another likened the painting to a 'mawkish book illustration'. It scarcely matters that Prince William called the portrait 'just amazing' and 'absolutely beautiful', an assessment with which his wife agreed. Perhaps they were just being polite.

Emsley, too, claimed, 'I like to think I'm polite, considerate of the feelings of the sitter' - he met the Duchess four times before completing the portrait, talking to and taking photographs of her, and just looking at her - but he also asserts the right to be an artist. 'In the age of photography, portrait painting is almost anathema. Why on earth do we still paint portraits? If you look at the photographs of Kate, on which my portrait was based, you see that I've changed an awful lot. There is a balance of realism and going beyond to something more mysterious. There is a consideration of the structure of the face, drawing out what's distinctive about the face, the sense of mystery, timelessness, quiet.'

Portraits are inherently a celebration of a life, but whose vision of that life? Graham Sutherland's portrait of Winston Churchill so offended the prime minister's widow that she had it destroyed, and Peter Hurd may best be remembered for President Lyndon Johnson's verdict on his portrait ('the ugliest thing I ever saw'). Everyone wants to be younger or trimmer, with a less prominent nose and fuller lips.

Parents may sometimes be difficult clients when commissioning portraits of their children - the painter John Singer Sargent, when asked why he completely redid the face of a young woman 15 times, answered, 'She had a mother' - and especially if the portrait is posthumous. …

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