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The King’s New Portrait Has Some Divided

May 16, 2024
A portrait painting of King Charles III in a red military uniform against a red background with a butterfly hovering above his right shoulder.

HM King Charles III by Jonathan Yeo (image courtesy of the artist)

King Charles III has one of the most recognizable faces in the world, meaning his image and presentation is of paramount importance. This week, Buckingham Palace revealed His Majesty’s first official painted portrait as king, made by the British artist Jonathan Yeo. And it has some people raising their eyebrows in both amazement and confusion.

Yeo started work on the portrait in 2021 while King Charles was still the Prince of Wales and heir to his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. Yeo has become known in Britain as one of the country’s leading portraitists, with the likes of Malala Yousafzai and former Prime Minister Tony Blair sitting for him. In the past, Yeo has also created portraits of Queen Camilla and Prince Philip. On Tuesday, the King pulled away the curtain and unveiled the painting, revealing his likeness against a splotchy red and pink background. In the portrait, the King wears his uniform as regimental colonel of the Welsh Guards, the bright red uniform commonly associated with parts of the British military. His uniform, combined with the background, brings the viewer’s focus to the King’s face rather than his regalia. Another noticeable detail is a butterfly just above his right shoulder. Many have interpreted the butterfly as a reference to the King’s environmentalism. However, Yeo says he added it as a symbol of metamorphosis, a nod to the King’s ascension and the changes in status and responsibility that accompanied it.

The portrait was commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Drapers, traditionally a wool and cloth merchants’ guild but now a philanthropic society. The King and Queen are reportedly very happy with the portrait, while some members of the public seem rather unenthused. One Instagram comment on a post from the royal family’s account says that the red background and uniform almost seem like a “visual representation of the massacre cause[d] by colonizers”. Another comment read, “Looks like he’s going straight to hell.” Others have also ascribed symbolic meaning to the painting differently; the King blending into the background is a good analogy for the British monarchy’s depleting significance. It also may be seen as a statement on the King’s struggles living in the shadow of his incredibly popular mother. While, in the past, Yeo has certainly satirized and criticized figures of authority through his art, he expressed that the King’s portrait contained no such criticism. He wrote on his website that the bright colors are meant to be “a dynamic, contemporary jolt” in a genre of painting perhaps seen as stuffy and conservative.

The portrait will be temporarily exhibited at the Philip Mould Gallery in London until June 14, moving on to Drapers’ Hall in August. Drapers’ Hall, the London seat of the Company of Drapers, houses its own gallery of royal portraits. There, the King’s portrait will hang alongside paintings of his relatives, like a copy of Heinrich von Angeli’s portrait of Queen Victoria.