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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Painting the Queen

The most recent official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II of England,
painted by Australian-born artist Ralph Heimans.
Not too long ago I completed a series on portraits of U.S. Presidents. As might be expected, Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Kennedy each had dozens, perhaps up into the hundreds of portraits painted of them both during and after their lifetimes. Some of those in the 20th-century had thousands more of photos taken of them. Be that as it may, not one could match in quantity (if not quality), the sheer number of painted and photographic images created of them by artists of all media as compared to the most painted and photographed world figure today, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. There are very likely dozens of painted portraits of Her Royal Highness from the time she was a little princess of seven in 1933 to this year, 2016, as she turned ninety. Ascending to the throne of England upon the death of her father, George VI in 1952, she is the longest reigning monarch in the history of England. That's sixty-four years--a lot of time to pose for painters.
I chose both formal and informal poses in which the various
artists were able to "capture" the queen while maintaining her
royal bearing.
England's National Portrait Galley places the number of portraits painted of the queen at 918, though they don't define how "official" those portraits may be, only that she is the most painted individual in history of the world. I can believe that. I just finished plowing through literally hundreds of painted portraits of the queen, making quite difficult decisions based on a number of criteria as to which ones to collect and which to skip over. I sought to choose some of the best (in my opinion). Above are some of my favorites. I also chose some of the more interesting and unusual; and of course, some of the worst (though usually well-intentioned) portraits of Her Majesty.
From a sweetly beautiful little princess to a regal, dowager, monarch--
sixty years in just eight paintings.
One of the many burdens this queen must bear is that there have been so many portraits painted of her over the years that she can simply walk the hallowed halls of Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and especially London's National Portrait Gallery, and in each place, literally watch herself grow old. In an effort to ease that burden, I've collected eight portraits spread over sixty years and grouped them (above) for her benefit. I'm only seventy but I know what a strenuous trek it is to visit large art museums.
What do you think? Assuming she had a good lawyer, could
the queen win a case on the grounds of visual slander?
Another disadvantage in being the most painted person in the world is that a disturbingly large number of those portraits are not very flattering (above). Many of them, you might say, but the UGH in ugly. I don't think the queen would want Lucien Freud's portrait of her hanging around frightening small children. The same would likely apply to the nude portrait she probably did not pose for or commission. It's not that it's really unflattering, mostly is just...somewhat naked. However as nude paintings go, it seems tastefully restrained.

Not the stuff to make an artist a household word, but sufficient
to get you invited back to the palace to see the next unveiling.
For a rising young artist, being asked by the queen to paint her portrait (or some major organization wishing to display her painted image on their wall) the hours spent conversing with, observing, and getting to know such a warm, much-beloved individual is often more important that any fee earned. And when the portrait is finally unveiled and accepted, the results can make, and sometimes, unfortunately, break an artist career and reputation. Usually the palace is warm and gentle in dealing with the working artists trying to paint the queen, but, more than a few times that has not always been the case. Given the odds, the vast majority of portraits of the queen are not godawful bad. On the other hand, neither are they the stuff well-endowed museums and wealthy art collectors fight over at Sotheby's or Christie's (above). In layman's terms, they're good, but they're seldom great.
I wonder if the queen ever posed for Andy Warhol in 1985.
Royal Visit, 1953, Jack Wood

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