The 10 Most Unflattering Portraits Ever Made and the Stories Behind Them
The 10 Most Unflattering Portraits Ever Made and the Stories Behind Them

The 10 Most Unflattering Portraits Ever Made and the Stories Behind Them

Alexander Meddings - December 21, 2017

The 10 Most Unflattering Portraits Ever Made and the Stories Behind Them
Prince Philip. Bytes Blogger

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, by Stuart Pearson Wright

In 2004 Stuart Pearson Wright was given the green light by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, to do his royal portrait. The Duke declined an invitation to model at the artist’s studio, an old sausage factory in east London. Instead he insisted that Stuart came to Buckingham palace for four one-hour sessions (sixteen short of the recommended 20 sessions).

The title of the resulting work is Homo sapiens, Lepidium sativum and Calliphora vomitoria, which is essentially a pretentious Latin translation of “a wise man, some cress, and a bluebottle”. It does exactly what it says on the tin. The bluebottle might seem completely random, and to a large extent it is. But it does derive from the Vanitas tradition in art, which interpolates a worm-eaten apple or falling rose or something similar to tie us to nature and remind us that all flesh is grass.

The cress, according to the artist, is a reference to the Prince as seed-bearer to the royal family (good luck trying to get that image out of your head). And then there’s the chest hair. No, it’s not Philip’s torso. It belongs to an anonymous, elderly gentleman who lives in London’s Bethnal Green. Apparently he was rather startled that his chest had ended up superimposed on the Duke of Edinburgh, but also quite flattered.

The 10 Most Unflattering Portraits Ever Made and the Stories Behind Them
Stuart Pearson Wright with his “Homo sapiens, Lepidium sativum and Calliphora vomitoria”. Daily Mail

The portrait didn’t go down terribly well with the Duke. At the end of the first hour’s sitting, Philip peeked over the artist’s shoulder and in horror exclaimed, “Godzooks!” which, after looking up, I can tell you is an archaic English term for God’s hooks, and means to say he didn’t like it. After the fourth and final sitting, Pearson Wright asked the Duke whether he thought he’d captured a resemblance. “I bloody well hope not,” was his concise response.

Unsurprisingly the portrait doesn’t hang in Buckingham Palace or Balmoral. Deemed “inappropriate by the Royal Society of Arts, it was kept by the artist who put it on sale for £25,000. A head and shoulders version greets startled visitors to the RSA’s Strand Headquarters. The Duke of Edinburgh has apparently yet to visit.

The 10 Most Unflattering Portraits Ever Made and the Stories Behind Them
Danish Royals. The Independent

The Danish Royal Family by Thomas Kluge

Suffice to say it came as a surprise when, in 2013, the first portrait of the Danish Royal Family in 125 years was unveiled. Not least because is resembled a scene from “The Omen”. Critics, as they are wont to do, criticised the work, calling it a mix between a horror film advertisement and a botched Photoshop attempt. Disappointing news for the artist, Thomas Kluge, who spent four years painting Queen Margrethe and her family.

The 10 Most Unflattering Portraits Ever Made and the Stories Behind Them
Christian IX of Denmark with his family (painted 1883 – 1886) by Laurits Tuxen. Wikimedia Commons

The portrait evoked an earlier piece; the last portrait of the Danish Royal Family, set in the hall of Fredensborg Palace in the mid nineteenth century. But despite the stylistic similarities between the two—not least their realism/hyper-realism—the artist never intended for it. “I was trying to take out realistic depictions because we live in a democratic world and I think our Queen and her family are now symbolic,” Kluge explained. “This is satire.”

Well at least we can all agree there’s little realistic about the setting. The family float in purgatorial darkness before a crumbling, century-old backdrop of the former palace. It’s the stuff of nightmares, particularly with Princess Isabella (far left) clutching a doll and doing her best demon face and Prince Christian, the second in line to the throne, looking like the protagonist from Honey I Shrunk the Antichrist. At least the sittings were more fun-filled with the artist playing football with Prince Christian between sessions.

The 10 Most Unflattering Portraits Ever Made and the Stories Behind Them
Queen Margrethe II’s works at the Arken Museum of Modern Art. Huffington Post

Still, at least the Danish Royal Family isn’t as picky as the British. Queen Margrethe at least accepted the work (though without publically commenting as to whether she liked it or not). And Margrethe knows a thing or two about art. As well as being a full-time monarch, she’s a part time painter: the illustrator for the Danish edition of JRR Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” series and a painter in her own right, with a recent exhibition in Denmark’s Museum of National Art. Then again, being the Queen it can’t be that hard to get a spot…

The 10 Most Unflattering Portraits Ever Made and the Stories Behind Them
George Bush’s portraits. BBC

Vladimir Putin by George Bush

Whatever your political alignment, we can all probably agree that George Bush’s artistic legacy is less offensive and destructive than his political legacy. Having said that, it’s still awful. Little of the Texan oilman shines through in the oil paintings of the former president, though to his credit they do reveal a softer side. I’ll be honest: in choosing Bush’s most unflattering portrait it could have been any of them. But the award goes to what the artist himself considers his magnum opus: his portrait of Vladimir Putin (or “Pootie Poot” as the former president called him during his time in office).

When the two first met in Slovenia on state business in 2001, President Bush claimed he could see straight through Mr Putin. “I looked the man in the eye”, he reflected, “I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Looking through the windows of the soul didn’t translate to capturing the man’s spirit how. Rather than revealing the Machiavellian side of Putin’s public persona, Bush’s portrait seems to present a man who looks like he’s been awkwardly interrupted partway through blacking up.

Several art critics praised Bush for the exhibition: not necessarily because of his technical skill, but because of the balls needed to expose himself up to the inevitable criticism. “He’s made himself strangely vulnerable,” mused LA-based critic Daniel Rolnik, “but he’s a folk artist. In a weird way he’s the most American folk artist ever because he’s had the highest position in America.” Others followed suit. “I certainly see this as humanising him,” said a critic for the Washington Post, “I think this gives him a chance to be seen in a different light.”

These portraits certainly do represent the former president in a different light. One thing we can say in his favour is that it isn’t monochrome. George Bush was long caricatured for his simplicity and apparent lack of analytical prowess. If these unflattering portraits do nothing else, they at least confirm one thing: Mr Bush doesn’t see everything in black and white.

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