GOD SAVE THE QUEEN: Recent Portraits of Elizabeth II
Elizabeth II, the queen regnant, is the most-portrayed individual in history, with some 819 official portraits logged since her birth in 1926. Some have been spectacular successes, like Pietro Annigoni’s portrait of the young queen, wearing the robes of the Order of the Garter, painted for the Worshipful Fishmonger’s Company in 1955 and Cecil Beaton’s glamorous photographs of the 1960s; others have not. The failed images go wrong by employing the conventions of aristocratic portraiture of the 18th and 19th centuries for the representation of 20th- and 21st-century subjects. The old formula, which dates back to Van Dyck and Rigaud, calls for military bearing, an idealized yet expressionless face, an impersonal gaze fixed just above the viewer, and places the subject at a distance, both figuratively and literally, from the viewer. When used to portray modern monarchs, those conventions, along with the academic finish and oil paint medium, which are meant to lend dignity to the image, contribute to the pervasive sense of out-datedness, from which flows irrelevance.
In the past 15 years, the Queen has made a conscious effort to keep her public image current by sitting for portraits by critically-admired contemporary artists who work in the visual idiom of her own era, and not that of Queen Anne. This means more photographic portraits and fewer paintings, and the paintings that are commissioned are mainly executed in acrylics. The tone or overall valence of these portraits is different, because the artist, self-effacing in the old formula, is now as much of a presence as the subject. And she is amenable to the process: Elizabeth II is a skilled photographer herself and has hundreds of hours of modeling experience from sitting for her portraits so she is perhaps the portraitist’s ideal subject.
The license to do as they saw fit resulted in the artists thinking about the monarchy and developing highly individual approaches to recording the image of a ruler for posterity. She allowed Lucian Freud to bring us right up to her face and to frankly portray the signs of old age in a non-sentimental manner and which does not suggest a meretricious sense of familiarity. She has also allowed a note of ironic self-awareness to be registered, as seen in the Queen of Scots portrait by Julian Calder (for which she had to stand in a gnat-ridden bog in full regalia for hours) and she gave a cinematic performance of her various official selves and their wardrobes for Annie Liebovitz.
For Chris Levine’s holographic portrait, Lightness of Being, which doesn’t even refer to the Queen in its title, the artist–who is known for his highly-artificial, stylized photographs of Kate Moss and Barbie–has created a superb, completely up-to-date look for the modern monarch, by styling her with makeup and wardrobe that is coolly chic, but appropriate to her royal dignity. In many portraits from the 1960s through the 1980s, the Queen makes eye-contact with the viewer. This was meant to bridge the distance between monarch and subject, but in the end it creates an annoying sense of fake intimacy neither side believes (remember, in the 18th century it was considered a grave offense to look the Sovereign in the eye). Levine drops that convention, and the distant gaze that preceded it, and instead daringly portrays the queen with closed eyes (during sittings for a holographic image made for a bank note, Levine snapped the source still photo while the Queen closed her eyes to rest them in between takes). This conceit forecloses the fatuous illusion of familiarity proposed by the look-you-in-the-eye genre, bluntly informing us that she is distant, that she is not your familiar, but she also not going to lie to you and pretend otherwise. This is not atavistic; it shows clear thinking about about the nature of the monarch, which makes for memorable images.
We recognize the faces of Henry VIII, Charles V, Phillip IV, Louis XIV, and Napoleon because they have been captured by Holbein, Titian, Vélazquez, Rigaud and David; and we do not not remember what Charles II, Leopold I, Charles X, Franz-Josef I or Edward VII because they were painted by less inventive artists. The Queen, too, clearly knows that in the future, her features and her reign will be remembered insofar as the artworks that represent her are remembered and given her recent choices, it seems likely hers will remain a familiar face in the centuries to come.