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Artist speaks out on uproar over Duchess of Cambridge portrait

Artist Paul Emsley poses for photographers next to his newly-commissioned portrait of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

Artist Paul Emsley poses for photographers next to his newly-commissioned portrait of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

On Paul Emsley’s studio wall hangs an alternative version of the most famous portrait of one of the most famous women in the world. In it, the Duchess of Cambridge, the royal formerly known as Kate Middleton, appears bright-eyed and young, refreshed, even innocent.

It is, perhaps, the antithesis of its larger, fraternal twin, the first official portrait of the 31-year-old duchess that, when unveiled two weeks ago, touched off nearly universal indignation. Netizens, royal junkies and art critics – armchair or otherwise – savaged the portrait. Where Emsley saw mystery, his attackers saw a woman aged beyond her years. Where he saw natural beauty, they saw bags under her eyes. Where he saw regal bearing, they saw the duchess’s Picture of Dorian Gray.

“Ghastly . . . an out and out disaster,” stung the British Art Journal.

Like “something unpleasant from the Twilight franchise,” piled on the Guardian.

As Emsley attempts to process the full power of one work in the age of instant media to alter an artist’s life, a question swirled in his head. Should he have done the portrait differently? To answer it, he picked up a piece of black chalk a few days ago and began cathartically sketching another work. This time, it was the way the duchess’s devoted followers so often see her in glossy magazines and airbrushed photos: The flawless fairy tale beauty who bagged a prince.

But a funny thing happened as he did the sketch. The self-doubt of a man who is his own worst critic began to fade, replaced with a growing certainty that the portrait now hanging in London’s National Portrait Gallery is not only the better version, but maybe even the masterwork of his career.

Emsley showed the alternative version to a visitor, but he would not allow it to be photographed. He said he intends to keep it for private purposes only inside his studio.

“There’s a quotation an American friend of mine, the wife of an American artist, sent me in support,” Emsley said in a four-hour interview, his most extensive since going into seclusion after the portrait’s negative reception. “When Picasso was told his portrait of Gertrude Stein did not look like her, his response was, ‘It will.’ People will become acclimatized over time to something which is not something that they were expecting.”

Last March, when he first met the duchess at the National Portrait Gallery off Trafalgar Square as one of four finalists for the commission, his pitch was a contemporary portrayal using traditional techniques. “I wanted to do something which had some sort of a sense of mystery, of presence, of stillness about it.”

The pitch worked. Three days later, he had the job, with the duchess arriving at his home for her first sitting last May. Over six hours, he photographed her in various grades of natural light. Another sitting several weeks later at London’s Kensington Palace yielded the shot Emsley would use in his studio to paint her portrait. In it, the duchess, who had told Emsley she wanted to be seen as her “natural, not official self,” looked precisely that: light make-up, wind-blown hair, slightly mischievous smile.

In his small studio, he labored over the portrait for four months, substantially longer than normal. A moment of truth came a month later when the finished work was presented to the duchess at a private viewing in the National Portrait Gallery. Emsley, who was not present, said he beamed when he heard the duchess was delighted.

She would later state her pleasure publicly. “It’s just amazing, I thought it was brilliant,” she said in front of a full court press at the portrait’s official unveiling Jan. 11.

Emsley was overjoyed by her response. “I had the sense that she did get my work, that she understood what I was trying to do.”

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