Charles III Unveiled His First Official Portrait as King. Is It Too Red?

Artist Jonathan Yeo’s nontraditional approach to royal portraiture has drawn mixed reactions

Portrait of King Charles
Jonathan Yeo's portrait of Charles III wearing the uniform of the Welsh Guards Aaron Chown-WPA Pool / Getty Images

The first official portrait of Charles III since his coronation was unveiled on Tuesday at Buckingham Palace.

Created by British artist Jonathan Yeo, the painting portrays the king holding a sword and wearing the uniform of the Welsh Guards, which blends into a matching red backdrop. A butterfly flies above his right shoulder.

The unveiling ceremony took place three months after the king revealed his cancer diagnosis; a few weeks ago, he announced his return to public duties.

“Much like the butterfly I’ve painted hovering over his shoulder, this portrait has evolved as the subject’s role in our public life has transformed,” writes Yeo in an Instagram post. “I do my best to capture the life experiences and humanity etched into any individual sitter’s face, and I hope that is what I have achieved in this portrait.”

He has been working on the painting since June 2021, roughly two years before Charles’ coronation. The king sat for Yeo on four occasions, according to a statement from Buckingham Palace. The artist also used other drawings and photographs for reference.

Previously, Yeo has painted prominent figures such as Rupert Murdoch, Tony Blair and Malala Yousafzai. The artist has also created portraits of Charles’ father, Prince Philip, and his wife, Queen Camilla.

The intense red color that covers the majority of the canvas marks a departure from the customs of royal portraiture. On his website, Yeo writes that he wanted to inject a “dynamic, contemporary jolt into the genre with its uniformly powerful hue … providing a modern contrast to more traditional depictions.”

Charles Unveils First Official Potrait
Charles III unveils his first official portrait as king at Buckingham Palace. Aaron Chown-WPA Pool / Getty Images

The king saw the painting when it was about halfway done. Yeo tells BBC News’ Katie Razzall that Charles was “mildly surprised by the strong color, but otherwise he seemed to be smiling approvingly.” He adds that when Camilla saw the portrait, she said, “Yes, you’ve got him.”

Outside of Buckingham Palace, the 8.5- by 6.5-foot framed artwork has been met with mixed reviews.

When BBC News asked members of the public for their reactions, some were taken aback by the “very red” color, calling the portrait “quite disturbing,” evoking imagery like a “massacre” or “flames.” Others approved of the modern approach, calling it “nice” and “distinguished.” One woman remarked, “I’m a big fan of red.”

Meanwhile, some critics have been quite harsh. “Charles’ face is like a disembodied specter of death floating between violent brushstrokes,” writes the Cut’s Danielle Cohen. The Washington Post’s Sebastian Smee calls it “confused, obsequious, oversized and unaccountably frightening.”

Charles’ portrait will hang in London’s financial district at Drapers’ Hall among those of other British monarchs, including George III and Queen Victoria. The butterfly above the king’s shoulder was Charles’ idea. It represents his transition from prince to king and his environmental activism.

Yeo tells the New York Times’ Livia Albeck-Ripka that he noticed physical differences in Charles throughout their four sittings together. “Age and experience were suiting him,” says Yeo. “His demeanor definitely changed after he became king.”

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