In an age of selfies, portraiture is still one of the most talked-about art forms. Associate Professor Robert Wellington explains why.

“It’s the red that does it quite frankly.”

Dr Robert Wellington, an art historian from The Australian National University (ANU), is taking in the recent portrait of King Charles III by artist Jonathan Yeo.

Unveiled last month, the nine-foot high portrait is the first of King Charles since his coronation last year.

The painting depicts King Charles amidst swirls of blood plum, with a monarch butterfly hovering over his shoulder.

Like any notable portrait, Yeo’s depiction of His Majesty has divided audiences – stirring public debate on questions of truth, tradition, and how the work will age over time.

Wellington is impartial towards the piece, but isn’t surprised at the mixed response. From the poignancy of Frida Kahlo’s work to the saturated brush strokes of Van Gogh; portraiture has a long history of pushing boundaries and inciting opinions.

“Portraiture is one of the rare art forms, particularly in Australia, but also around the world, that the general public takes an interest in. Just look at the popularity of the Archibald Prize,” says Wellington. 

“I think it’s because people find portraits easy to engage with. People feel that they can judge a portrait based on whether they feel it holds a strong likeness, whether it feels naturalistic, or if it captures a deeper sense of who the subject is.”

It’s unsurprising that in Yeo’s work, His Majesty’s likeness is captured in a favourable light. The symbolism of the butterfly, which connects to the King’s environmental interests and the choice to portray him in the red uniform of the Welsh Guards, are examples of the self-fashioning of royal portraiture.

“It’s been said that it was an unconventional portrait. I suppose for the general public, it could be considered that, but in terms of the history of art, it really isn’t,” says Wellington.

“He wears a sash and the Order of Saint George; even the butterfly is a monarch. All of these things are actually quite conventional; the most startling thing is that colour and the semi-abstract, unfinished background.”

While the weight of royal portraiture has lessened with the ubiquity of cameras, television and social media, such images are still a way for the British royal family to control their public image – a sort of portraiture PR machine.

“Charles has, in the last 20 to 25 years, had to do quite a lot of damage repair to his reputation, and I think he’s actually been quite successful in doing so,” says Wellington.

“One of the reasons he’s been successful is through his commitment to environmentalism, which is obviously an important issue. He’s been outspoken about that, so it’s not surprising to me that there is a nod to that in this painting.”

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, or, at least, a picture invites audiences to say a thousand words.

“We have the technology now to constantly take and make our own portraits and self-portraits, and the ability to manipulate them through filters,” says Wellington.

“I think that all of these things make us constant armchair critics of what makes a good or a bad portrait. It comes down to the fact that people feel comfortable being able to discuss this kind of art. It’s accessible to everyone.”

You may also like

Article Card Image

Dr Jilda Andrews is reimagining the future of museums

Dr Jilda Andrews is breathing new life into museum artefacts —illuminating inclusive futures for Indigenous cultural heritage worldwide by exploring the troubled past.

Article Card Image

Do AI images mean the end of photographic truth?

Can you trust your own eyes? These ANU researchers say spotting AI images may be more difficult than ever.

Article Card Image

A new tune in the story of human history: what music tells us about the past

Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour might be the latest chapter in pop history, but looking back into our musical past could also hold important clues about our culture and who we are as humans, according to a new study from The Australian National University (ANU).   

Subscribe to ANU Reporter