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A Deep Dive into a Royal Red Portrait

[BLOG POST 5/26/24] Unless you are in a complete media blackout you probably heard about the new portrait of England's King Charles III by artist Jonathan Yeo. There has been a lot of speculation and discussion it and after completing my 12th "Rattlesnake" portrait I realized there was probably a lot more to the story. Every part of a canvas is a choice and I wanted to know more about the decisions made by the artist.

First I wanted to know who is the artist, Jonathan Yeo? Turns out he is no stranger to portraits. Here's what his website says:

Entirely self-taught, Yeo rose to prominence as a figurative painter by the age of thirty following several major official commissions, such as that of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (below).

His collage of George Bush in 2007 (below), however, earned his reputation as someone known for both traditional and experimental portraiture. Along with his Collage Series, Yeo has explored more conceptual themes in his series of paintings looking at cosmetic surgery and increasingly his portraits are addressing wider concepts and themes within the paintings’ narrative. 

Yeo has emerged as one of the foremost pioneers of figurative painting in Britain.  His career as a painter has seen him confront a multitude of different narratives and themes. Mette Skougaard, Director, Museum of National History, Denmark, said Yeo is “a pivotal force in the revitalisation of figurative art in general and in the art of portraiture in particular. “

So clearly the artist is no stranger to portraiture and the intricacies of painting a portrait.

Next I wanted to know more about his process and his decisions. Happily the more I read about how he created the King's portrait the more impressed I became. According to an article in British newspaper, The Independent, Yeo had four sittings with the King starting in 2021 and the last was in 2023. The first two were filled with conversation, sketching, and taking reference photographs. Most of the painting took place between the third and fourth sittings.

And here I thought spending a month or more on one of my portraits was a long time! 😉

The portrait was commissioned BEFORE Charles became King. In fact it was commissioned in 2020 to celebrate the then-Prince of Wales’ 50 years as a member of The Drapers’ Company which explains why he is wearing the uniform of the Welsh Guards. The artist thought the bright red uniform distracted from the face so he decided to make the background the same red so that the uniform would fade away allowing the person in the uniform dominate. He used the same concept in the portrait of Tony Blair above.

He said that the hardest part of the painting was the shiny buttons on the uniform which kept distracting from the King's face. And, because he didn't have a lot of experience painting metal, they were a struggle for him. In fact he said he spent more time on the buttons than on the face!

Yeo goes on to say that the color choice, "...may also have had psychological backing, because I had a heart attack [in March 2023] when I was painting this,” he says. “But certainly none of that I was conscious of – it was just: I like this colour.”

Apparently the butterfly hovering above the King's right shoulder (did you even notice it?) was the King's idea as revealed in a story by the BBC:

In history of art, the butterfly symbolises metamorphosis and rebirth," he explains, fitting for a portrait being painted of a monarch who has recently ascended to the throne.

The butterfly is also a reference to the King's long held interest in the environment, causes "he has championed most of his life and certainly long before they became a mainstream conversation".

Yeo says it was Charles' idea after they talked about the opportunity they had to tell a story with the portrait.

"I said, when schoolchildren are looking at this in 200 years and they're looking at the who's who of the monarchs, what clues can you give them?

"He said 'what about a butterfly landing on my shoulder?'".

Perhaps my favorite insight into the process was when I read this in the BBC article:

But Yeo says "there's a sanctity to the portrait process". Your sitters "need to believe what goes on is between the two of you because that way I think they feel more comfortable about opening up".

I've found that to be very true! When a model feels comfortable they tell you personal things and you get to see a side of them which oftentimes is kept from public view. It's a rare gift to get an opportunity to SEE someone. Not only their physical shape but their emotional state and the complexities of the life they lived.

Lastly I wanted to know what it is like to stand in front of the painting vs. see it tiny on a digital screen. After all the painting is approximately 8' 6" by 6' 6"! Plus, as you know dear reader, I am a BIG proponent of seeing art live. Thankfully I found an online article by Ian Mansfield that described what it is like to stand in front of the art in person. He says:

...the portrait is exceptionally red but, maybe surprisingly, not as red as you might have expected from press photos. It is also a lot more textured than seems to be evident from photos taken of it so far.

In part, that could be due to the photos in the press so far often being close-ups or flat photos of the portrait without the frame, but once you see the portrait as a whole, the impact of the redness isn’t as eye-burning as you might have expected.

It’s still a very striking portrait, but not so much that it leaves you blinded by the expanse of red paint used.

If you’ve seen the portrait in the press, pay a visit to see it in person. It really is quite remarkable, in a good way.

I was unsure if I liked it or not from the news reports, but having seen it in the flesh, so to speak, undeniably, I am a fan.

Before I did all my research I really loved the face but was uncertain about the red color dominating the canvas. Red tends to symbolize blood, violence, passion, danger, anger, love, sex and more. So when I initially looked at the portrait I thought it was an odd choice for a king with a reputation for being calm and reserved and who rules during a peaceful time in England. But after learning more about why the artist chose the color and hearing at least one person's experience seeing it live I like it and am left wishing I could travel to see it in person.

So dear reader what do YOU think about the portrait?

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