American actress Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956, and although she was lauded as a talented starlet for her own cinematic accomplishments, her biography shares parallels with the Duchess of Cambridge’s, discussed last week. Both women sprouted up from obscure and conventional childhoods to the realm of international prestige through favourable matches, forced to quickly master the tricks of court etiquette and public obligation. Just like Duchess Catherine, Grace Kelly’s photographic likeness thickly saturated every avenue of widely-consumed visual media.
In 1958 her newly noble persona as Princess Consort Grace of Monaco was captured in an official oil portrait by the artist Mohamed Drisi. Despite some compositional discrepancies, the paintings of the two royal spouses exhibit several striking similarities, especially in regard to signified meaning.
Princess Grace is portrayed unaccompanied and in full-length, her towering willowy frame drenched in a lustrous, full-skirted, crimson satin ball gown which openly demonstrates the affluence and loftiness of her position. She emerges from same hazily blackened background as the English duchess, an artistic technique which starkly indicates to viewers that the portrait’s subject is deserving of undivided focus, worthy of all the importance a massive oil painting would suggest.
The crest of the royal family of Monaco is suspended somewhat awkwardly in the upper right corner of the image, its scarlet and gold tones reflected in the princess’ extravagant evening dress and smoothly coiffed wheaten waves. As with the carefully selected blue tone of the Duchess of Cambridge’s blouse, colour is used to symbolise and fortify Princess Grace’s station in a governing royal household.
The gleaming boulder of a wedding ring which arrestingly refracts light from the sitter’s left hand achieves an analogous symbolic effect, virtually screaming how many carats dear she is to the prince–much like Duchess Catherine’s conspicuously inherited sapphire earring.
Although no hint of a smile crosses the princess consort’s face, the expression that Drisi elected for this portrait delivers the same attitude and significance as Emsley’s canvnas. Chin tilted boldly upward, eyes sharply glaring forward to pierce and scrutinize the viewer’s gaze, eyebrows arching in barely perceptible haughtiness, Her Serene Highness Princess Grace appears every bit as placidly self-assured and enduring in her shroud of royalty as Duchess Catherine.
In 1958, colour film and photography was certainly in existence, yet perhaps still something of an unfeasible novelty for the average amateur shutterbug. However, a royal family could have very likely harnessed the equipment and experts necessary to produce stunning photographs of its members for the commons to coo over. That Princess Grace was depicted in oil paint makes a telling statement about the traditional sentimentality and respectability of the time-tested medium.
Pigment on canvas could have probably been considered outdated and blasé, overdone throughout the dusty centuries and comparatively lame in the context of the dizzying fervour for technological advances during the early Atomic Age. A Technicolour photograph might have been hipper for the age, but rendered with conventional artistic tools, Drisi’s portrait reads as a semiotic banner declaring the deep-rooted origins and immutability of sovereignty—anchoring the royal family in the pageantry of the past and the glitz of the contemporary period, while securing a meaning-packed presence in the future.
Semiotics proves quite an adroit methodology for extracting meaning when applied to portraiture, whether the implications perceived are barefacedly apparent or more cleverly understated. As demonstrated by the oil paintings of Duchess Catherine of Cambridge and Princess Grace of Monaco, semiotics can be particularly telling about the artistic tastes and ideologies through which royalty chooses to represent themselves, while simultaneously promoting identities as idols for the plebian multitudes and protecting private agendas of control and stability.
Semiotics is also capable of illuminating how one artistic practice, traditional oil painting, alters the projected meaning of the royal depictions (which both certainly achieve a remarkable degree of photorealism) in contrast to the significance which could have resulted had the ladies been rendered in the freeze-frame of a photographic portrait.
But, briefly, what questions could have been raised or resolved about the images by the application of a couple other art historical methodologies?
Focusing on the contemporary public reception of the works, a social art history mode of assessment would uncover information about the dynamics existing between average citizens and the nation’s aristocracy. Potentially illuminated issues could include the populace’s opinions on how individual royals should be depicted based on their perceived personas, whether artists should be held accountable for lifelike portrayals or be free to play with creative license, the desired role of the entire monarchy within society’s fluctuating structures, and the degree to which royal portraiture is able to sway public thought in favor of the establishment.
The Duchess of Cambridge’s portrait would make an especially stimulating inquiry as reactions to it have been harshly divided between positivity and seething negativity; Catherine herself was quoted upon the unveiling, “It’s just amazing, I thought it was brilliant,” while The Guardian published a mocking review online bitingly titled, “The Duchess of Cambridge Gets an Undertaker’s Makeover.”
A feminist approach to the portraits could probe into the realm of what it means for the royal female sitters to be drafted and reimagined on canvas by the male painters Emsley and Drisi. Perhaps comparing the images of the duchess and princess to representations of kings, dukes, or even their respective blue-blooded spouses might conceivably expose unequal artistic treatment between genders.
Using the portraits of Catherine and Grace as a tipping point, feminist theory could also elaborate upon the eminence of women within royal families throughout history—are they depicted merely as vapid, fertile, and ornately decorated vessels for bringing forth heirs and spares, or as feeling, intellectually competent individuals with a capacity for generating positive changes within society?
Spectacles of splendour and solemnity cannot cease after a new monarch’s jubilant coronation day; throughout a reign it is crucial that notions of constancy, worthiness, and dynastic clout are continually communicated to domestic subjects and the world abroad. Portraiture starring royal family members is a tremendous means of broadcasting the merits of sovereignty to a wide audience — as visible allegories endowed with both evident and sly layers of symbolic significance, artistic likenesses can voice volumes without requiring a trace of elaborative text. Despite other suitable modes of questioning, Peircean semiotics remains a valid methodology for eking out and analysing the overt and veiled meanings culturally coded into specific artistic techniques and ensuing dignified portraits, whether of an English duchess or a Monegasque princess.
Sources: A&E Networks Television, “Grace Kelly. Bio.” Biography.com.
D’Alleva, Anne. “The Analysis of Form, Symbol, and Sign.” In Methods and Theories of Art History. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2005. 30-31.
Dixon, Haley. “A picture of maturity: Duchess of Cambridge portrait unveiled.” The Telegraph.
“HRH The Duchess of Cambridge.” National Portrait Gallery Online.
Kennedy, Maev, and Caroline Davies. “Duchess of Cambridge delights in first official portrait.” The Guardian.
Oxford University Press. “Definition of semiotics in English.” Oxford Dictionaries.
Potts, Alex. “Sign.” In Robert S. Nelson & Richard Shiff (eds.) Critical Terms for Art History. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996. 20-34.
“Review.” Art Quarterly, Autumn 2013.
Searle, Adrian. “The Duchess of Cambridge gets an undertaker’s makeover.” The Guardian.