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What Do You See in This Portrait of King Charles?

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Photo: ARON CHOWN//POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Art is subjective, but I am finding it hard to subject myself to this new portrait of King Charles, the first made since his coronation and one of the spookier paintings I have ever laid eyes on. The eight-foot-tall tableau, which was recently completed by artist Jonathan Yeo and unveiled at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, shows Charles’s face amid a roiling sea of red paint, which the BBC has dubbed “vivid red” and the Daily Mail described as “fiery.” Great adjectives, but to me, this color is giving the distinct vibe of blood.

According to the BBC, Yeo painted Charles in the uniform of the Welsh Guards, a nod to his role as regimental colonel of that division of the British Army. Most of the Welsh Guards uniform is red, but in this portrait, everything except the king’s face looks as though it’s gotten a hefty dunk in some thick crimson plasma. Yeo told the BBC that the butterfly (also red) hovering near Charles’s right shoulder symbolizes “metamorphosis and rebirth” and his dedication to environmental causes “long before they became a mainstream conversation.” Hmm, could it also represent thousands of souls slaughtered by the British Empire, their wings beating fruitlessly against the chains of oppression?

Butterfly symbolism aside, this image generally does not exude the aura of calm and comfort one expects from a monarch who sells jam and sings to his plants. Instead, Charles’s face is like a disembodied specter of death floating between violent brushstrokes. Does this guy really think now is a good time to remind us of our associations between himself and blood? Alternatively, perhaps this is an imagined depiction of King Charles rotting in hell in real time.

But who am I, an American woman who minored in art history, to say what makes a good royal portrait? Let’s ask the only woman whose opinion really matters: Apparently, Queen Camilla paid Yeo a visit toward the end of his process and appraised the painting. Her verdict? “Yes, you’ve got him.”

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Danielle Cohen , 2024-05-14 22:15:49

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