Once sheathed in flowing ermine, drizzled with consecrated oil, crowned with the circular metallic weightiness of public duty and hailed gregariously from all sides with a booming, “God save the…!” kings, queens and their kin become vested with a strain of authority and eternal celebrity exclusive to the slenderest fraction of bloodlines.
The opulent ceremony of coronation, the dazzling pomp of ripened traditions culminating upon one apparently mortal head, is an imperative occurrence in dynastic life — yet nevertheless a fleeting moment. To perpetuate the glamour and enshrine monarchal supremacy for future generations, royalty has often and again sought assistance from portrait artists, skillful paint handlers able to deftly replicate regal countenances on canvas and transform majestic symbolism into physical images for public consumption.
Historically speaking, oil pigments were the only means of representation technologically available and suitably expensive for noble sitters and their favoured portraitists. Modern advances, however, beckoned in an era of photography which has ensnared contemporary sovereigns in its lens. Whether captured on film in staged, striking black and white compositions or snapped in colourful digital flashes triggered by a paparazzo’s nimble fingertip, photographs produce precise likenesses un-skewed by artistic interpretation.
During an age in which the camera reigns, what does it mean for royalty to purposefully choose to be embodied in painted hues, brushstrokes, and glossy varnish?
Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, now Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge after wedding His Royal Highness Prince William of England, is the subject of a National Portrait Gallery commission given by Sir Hugh Leggatt in memory of Sir Denis Mahon through the Art Fund and completed in 2012 by the artist Paul Emsley.
Works of art are frequently spoken of as if their meaning is inherent in their identity as objects, yet meaning cannot literally be seen in a composition; rather an image operates as a readable sign, evoking, through cultural conventions, significance more elaborate than its plain existence as colour smeared on canvas yields.
American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce’s unique brand of semiotics is particularly pertinent to portraiture. According to Peirce, signs are constructed of three parts: a representamen, the form that the sign takes, an interpretant, the sense a viewer makes of the sign, and an object, the entity to which the sign refers.
Peirce recognised that not all signs function in the same manner, thus fashioned an exhaustive list of categories stretching well into the tens of thousands. Most applicable to art history, and especially to the analysis of portraiture, are Peirce’s notions of symbol, in which the form of representation is utterly arbitrary to what meaning is derived, of icon, in which a representation is perceived as resembling or imitating the portrayed concept, and of index, in which what or whom is represented is directly and observably linked to the meaning aroused, either physically or casually.
Indeed, royal portraits fulfill Peirce’s semiotic requirements and function as manifold signs. The image of the sitter, rendered in formal elements like line, colour, and texture acts as a representamen, molding the physical basis of the sign as a whole. Viewers’ acknowledgement of the sitter’s personal identity, their elevated social rank, and the admiration and deference generally granted to members of such elite echelons arises as an interpretant upon encountering the portrait. The flesh and blood royal, the tangibly alive human being bowed and curtsied to by the common masses, is the object to whom the entire sign refers.
A completed royal portrait is a symbol of idyllic regal authority, an arbitrary connection because the sitter’s face cannot convey the virtues of a monarchy simply through the display of confident eyes, a stern chin, sloping nose, and other well-bred features. Demonstrating overlap between sorts of signs, a portrait is also both an icon and an index, since it aims to accurately resemble the real person and offers a direct trace of their physical presence in front of a working artist.
Yet what subtly coded meanings can be drawn out from this specific oil on canvas representation of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge?
No gem encrusted tiara, gilded furniture, red velvet draperies or fragile lap dogs are incorporated in the duchess’ first official portrait; just a larger than life facial close-up framed by tumbling chestnut, shampoo–commercial locks, a sober background, an unembellished, blue-green pussy bow blouse modestly fastened up to the neck and a glint of one posh earring.
Her inherent beauty, alongside qualities of modest elegance and quiet grace are outwardly communicated. To the viewer, Catherine is still meant to be the easy-going girl next door, yet unquestionably legitimised in her new role among Britain’s highest ranking nobility. After all, her delicate chemise is not just any shade of navy, but Windsor blue, a colour that visually and verbally ties the duchess to the powerhouse that is the royal family.
Even the earring the artist Emsley allowed to peek out has unspoken significance; remodeled from studs to glittering droplets, the earrings were once a favourite of Princess Diana and given to Catherine as a wedding gift from Prince William. Certainly not plucked at random from a jewelry armoire drawer, the earrings align Catherine’s identity with that of her husband’s well-loved and fondly remembered mother.
Known globally for her charm and youthful energy, the duchess is depicted here as more solemnly mature than images of her in the mass media reflect. Emsley unabashedly painted the first etchings of fine lines across Catherine’s filled-out face, and viewers can hardly ignore the presence of murky half-moon bags under her icy eyes. An aged appearance has the effect of defining the duchess as fairly matronly, a reminder to the public that she is the woman responsible for bearing the future heir to the throne and assuring the continuity of the Windsor line. Catherine’s beginning-to-crinkle visage, her closed-mouthed simper and the blackened matte portrait background combine to send the message that her exalted status, although newly gained, is permanent — that she is to be taken seriously as a figurehead of state, despite her comparatively common origins.
Catherine desired a simple image of herself; her sole request to Emsley was that she should look like a natural human being, not a woman on official duty.
Any photograph might have delivered such a humble vision of self, but the pricey oil painting commission, which cost a hefty 34,260 pounds sterling, demonstrates her assimilation into the royal family as only wealth can. Today, very much as in the past, it is the upper crust and oligarchs who can afford the allotments of money and leisure time required to sit patiently in a studio as an artist practices their immortalising paint tricks.
The duchess’ role as patron to the National Portrait Gallery is also poignantly reiterated by being exemplified in oil on canvas, the medium most traditional, popular and perhaps valued in the institution. As a semiotic sign, Catherine’s painted portrait, although relatively guileless upon immediate inspection, conveys multifaceted meanings concerning a modern monarchy consciously keen to assert itself as less ostentatious, yet as a powerful, unfading institution nonetheless.
Come again next week, when a different image of, and fit for, a princess will be peeled apart for its tidbits of stately significance…
Sources: BBC. “Duchess of Cambridge painter Paul Emsley battled doubts.” BBC News
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