Great controversy over the new royal portrait of King Charles III

Royal portraits, as a rule, tend to be quite serious and predictable affairs. Full of symbolism, sure, but generally symbolism of the traditional, establishment kind: symbols of status, of office, of pageantry and lineage.

This is why Jonathan Yeo's new official portrait of King Charles III, the first since the king's coronation, has sparked so much controversy.

The portrait, a large canvas (7.5 feet by 5.5 feet), shows the king standing in his Welsh Guards uniform, his hands on the hilt of his sword, a half-smile on his face, with a butterfly it hovers just above his right shoulder. His whole body is immersed in a crimson sea, so his face seems to be floating.

Although the butterfly was ostensibly the key element of the semiology – intended, Yeo told the BBC, to represent Charles's metamorphosis from prince to ruler and his long-standing love of the environment – ​​it was the primary color of the painting a almost instantly give new meaning to the image. the idea of ​​“seeing red”. It practically asked for interpretation.

“For me it sends the message that the monarchy is going up in flames or the king is burning in hell,” one commenter wrote under the royal family's Instagram post when the portrait was unveiled.

“Looks like he's bathing in blood,” another wrote. Someone else brought up the idea of ​​“colonial bloodshed.” There were comparisons to the devil. And so on. There was also a mention of the Tampax affair, a reference to an infamous comment Charles made that was revealed when his phone was hacked during the end of his marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales.

It turns out that red is a trigger color for almost everyone, especially when you consider the sort of meta-enterprise that is real portraiture: the representation of a representation, made for posterity.

In his interview with the BBC, Yeo noted that when the king first saw the painting, he was “initially slightly surprised by the strong colour,” which may be an understatement. Mr Yeo said his aim was to produce a more modern royal portrait, reflecting Charles' desire to be a more modern monarch, reducing the number of working royals and scaling back the pageantry of the coronation (all things are relative).

However, the choice of shadow seems especially difficult given the… well, firestorm the king has had to endure since his accession to the throne.

Consider, for example, the ongoing arguments with his second son, Prince Harry, and the publication of Harry's memoirs, with its accusations of royal racism; the related calls for the end of the monarchy; Charles' cancer diagnosis; and the furor over the mystery surrounding Catherine, Princess of Wales, whose cancer diagnosis was revealed only after increasingly senseless speculation that she had disappeared from public life.

Queen Camilla, who passed through her own ring of flames, reportedly told the artist: “You got him.”

It is hard to imagine that Mr Yeo did not foresee some of the reactions to the portrait, especially in the context of his past works, including portraits of Prince Philip, the king's father, and Queen Camilla, which are more traditional depictions. Indeed, the last time a royal portraitist attempted a more abstract and contemporary interpretation of their subject – a 1998 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Justin Mortimer, which depicted the queen against a neon yellow background with a splash of yellow that bisected her neck – produced a similar public outcry. The Daily Mail accused the artist of cutting off the Queen's head.

The portrait of King Charles will remain on display at the Philip Mold Gallery until mid-June, when it will move to Drapers' Hall in London. (It was commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Drapers, a medieval guild turned philanthropy, to reside among hundreds of other more orthodox royal portraits.)

In this context, Mr Yeo's work may be particularly significant: it reflects not only a monarch, but also the evolution of the role itself, the conflicts around the work and a king forever caught in what seems very much the hot seat.

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