The Controversial Kate Middleton Portrait That Had Critics Up In Arms

There has always been special meaning affixed to royal portraits, so there was a great deal of scrutiny when the first official portrait of Kate Middleton was released to the public in January 2013. The piece was created by artist Paul Emsley, who was highly decorated in his field, and took a naturalistic approach to the portrait. Critics hated it. "Thank goodness, the beautiful Duchess of Cambridge does not look like this. I am sorry to say it is a rotten portrait," Robin Simon, editor of the British Art Journal wrote for the Daily Mail at the time. The Guardian cited the "Twilight" films and described Middleton as having "a vampiric, malevolent glare beneath heavy lids." Members of the public believed she looked at least 20 years older than her age.

Despite the portrait becoming one of the more controversial moments for Kate Middleton, both she and Prince William said they were very pleased with Emsley's work. "[A]mazing ... I thought it was brilliant," Middleton said, per ABC News.

Shortly after the portrait was unveiled to the public, Emsley spoke about his process. He arranged two sittings with Middleton, and he took a series of photographs to complete the portrait. "I did not deliberately age her or anything like that," the artist told The Washington Post in January 2013. "I wanted it to be an authentic record." Emsley also discussed the criticism of the piece. "I have to accept the fact that there are many people that don't like the portrait." That would be an understatement as he faced intense backlash from the public.

How Paul Emsley dealt with the severe criticism

At first, Paul Emsley tried to remain diplomatic about the criticism he faced for his portrait of Kate Middleton, but those barbs took a toll on the artist. "Some of the words written about it were so personal. I'd be inhuman if I said it didn't affect me," he told Hello! in January 2013. "I didn't expect it to go to the levels it did," Emsley said while adding that it was particularly difficult on his family. Initially, the backlash was so intense that Emsley began to question his own work, but eventually, he was able to tune out the critics. "There is nothing I would have changed," he said about the piece. "I believe half the problem is the portrait doesn't photograph well."

The following year, another portrait artist took a stab at capturing Middleton's essence on canvas. Scottish artist Tom Sutton-Smith made a portrait that was eventually seen by the Princess of Wales. "The painting was done from a picture, and it was difficult to get a picture of Kate not smiling," Sutton-Smith told Royal Central in June 2014. "There seems to be a trend to do super-realistic portraits, and I was trying [the] opposite."

Middleton and Prince William stopped by Perthshire Open Studios in June 2014 where they viewed the portrait. "She was wowed by it," Glenys Andrews, who ran the studio, told Vanity Fair about the couple's reaction. Years later, the Emsley portrait went missing from the public eye.

Kate Middleton and Prince Williams' joint portrait took over

In July 2023, it was reported that the infamous Paul Emsley portrait had been removed from public display. According to the Daily Mail, the painting was moved to the National Portrait Gallery where the gallery said it could be viewed "by prior appointment." A source told the outlet that they believed the truth about Kate Middleton is that she wanted the painting banished to the private gallery. "It's unthinkable that the painting of Her Royal Highness would be removed from public view without consulting her," the source said.

Meanwhile, earlier that year, the first official joint portrait of the Prince and Princess of Wales was revealed, and the reception was much warmer than Middleton's solo piece. Jamie Coreth was the artist responsible for the painting, and he spoke about how his process differed from Emsley's. "I wanted to show Their Royal Highnesses in a manner where they appeared both relaxed and approachable, as well as elegant and dignified," he said in June 2023, per People. "I wanted the image to evoke a feeling of balance between their public and private lives."

Besides the joint portrait of the royal couple that seemingly captured the essence that people expected, a solo photographic portrait of Middleton had been released. In January 2022, an elegant black and white photo of Princess Catherine was revealed and put on display at the National Portrait Gallery. Two years later, it was moved to the King's Gallery in Buckingham Palace for an exhibition. The photograph was notably not sent to storage.