Prince William and Kate have never looked so traditional

Who caught their eye? Someone – perhaps their four-year-old Prince Louis, who fidgeted so memorably during the Platinum Jubilee – is making the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge smile.

With this charming compositional device, Jamie Coret, the British artist chosen to create the first official portrait of the couple together, now on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, brings a vital touch of informality to a painting that might otherwise be so stiff. Prince William winks benevolently, as if tickled by a wayward beloved child; Katherine looks almost perplexed, her well-groomed left eyebrow arched ironically. Thus, we are offered a flash of their personalities that counteracts the public formality of the event.

Cleverly, Koret also hints at the strength of their marriage by merging their bodies together: notice how one of Katherine’s legs is neatly tucked behind the other to avoid the centipede-like clutter of limbs; meanwhile, their two arms are out of sight behind their torso, so that the Cambridges become almost a single organism. Their eyes may wander, but not from each other, as we must understand.

And yet: doesn’t the execution of the painting, the handling of paint, seem a little strange? The faces, both brilliant likenesses, are quasi-photographic. (Perhaps in an effort to avoid accusations of sycophancy, Coret does little to divert attention from William’s baldness.) Still, thanks to the braided quality of a supposedly bravura brushwork that should bring life to, for example, Katherine’s dress as the vampire wife. , the portrait resembles a snapshot of a smartphone with various “effects”. It makes me think of turn-of-the-century secular portraits, but with a modern twist: the work of, say, Giovanni Boldini, shimmering with fast, stormy brushstrokes, reimagined by the algorithm of the Instagram era.

Thus, for all the spontaneity of the painting, there is something oddly artificial about the overall effect. With his skinny legs and dark suit, William has a flat silhouette. The jagged outline of his head is clumsy, interacting awkwardly with the background, as if Coret had cut and pasted his face into the composition with photo-editing software. What’s more, the contrast of light and shadow in the picture is extreme – intentionally, I suspect, to trigger the paparazzi’s flashbulb. (After all, they’re dressed for the red carpet.) But, again, it feels like the slider in “Settings” is set to the maximum. Perhaps this is the “modern vision” that Coret’s website refers to.

Courteous and skillful, this portrait is certainly much better than the virago sculpture of Diana, the late Princess of Wales (whose pearl drop earrings are worn here by Catherine along with a brooch loaned by the Queen) that was unveiled by William and his brother Harry in Kensington Palace Gardens in the past summer. But it’s also completely arbitrary, with a hint of solid stonework behind them, echoing the upright rigidity of the Duchess’s pose (as well as the Duke’s leg-bearing), like the column in the background of a Van Dyck portrait.

If William one day wants to revitalize the monarchy with youthful energy, then I can humbly suggest that the next time he chooses a portraitist, he will not be so cautious.

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