In honor of London, the host of the 2012 Olympic Games, we would like to take a moment to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II and her relevance to the history of art. Perhaps one of the most famous and widespread artistic subjects of all time, Queen Elizabeth II’s likeness has been captured by a multitude of artists in a variety of mediums and circulated through an array of media channels. In this modern age, the Royal family is finding it increasingly difficult to control the royal image but, as her somewhat recent portrait by controversial British artist Lucian Freud shows, the Queen appears quite open-minded about her appearance.
The Queen’s portraits trace a distinct historical timeline, reflecting the shifting styles and values of each decade. However, at the heart of her public image lies an inherent paradox. As Art Newspaper journalist Roy Strong states in his article The Queen’s Image: the reverential and the real, “On the one hand, the public, in an egalitarian age during which deference has gone, increasingly wishes the members of the Royal Family to be seen to be “one of us.” On the other, there lingers a strong desire for a being set apart, a bejeweled icon embodying the nation and its heroic past, along with values and virtues long since abandoned by most of the population.” The Queen’s portraits walk a fine line between the two contradictions, yet the current times increasingly demand that the Queen reveal her true self from behind her royal mask.
From her earliest portraits by Marcus Adams (1875-1959), in which she appears as the epitome of childlike joy and innocence, to her 1952 portrait by Dorothy Wilding (1893 – 1976), which shows a stiff, stoic monarch, Queen Elizabeth II had been carefully manicured to convey an ideal monarch, beautiful and powerful.
By the 1950s, a new era of social change was in motion, and a new depiction of the Queen was needed to keep pace with the times. Photographer Cecil Beaton (1904-80) provided this change, initially capturing an otherworldly glow surrounding the Queen through his careful manipulation of light and then daringly capturing her portrait in an admiral’s cloak rather than her usual tiara and gown. This portrait was followed by two painted portraits by artist Pietro Annigoni (1910-88), in which the Queen appears larger than life, looming in the foreground before a vast landscape.
By the late 1960s, these images of hierarchical power were not the sole representations of the Queen. In 1969, the Palace opened its doors to TV cameras, altering the image of the Royal Family and allowing for alternate interpretations of the Queen’s persona. In a controversial act, the Sex Pistols released “God Save The Queen,” which, as Strong states, essentially “linked The Queen with a ‘fascist regime.’” In 1985, Andy Warhol (1928-87) translated Peter Grugeon’s photo of the Queen for the Silver Jubilee of 1977 into a work of pop art, essentially including the Queen in his long list of consumer item celebrities, while in 2001, British artist Lucian Freud painted the Queen’s portrait (with her permission), the result of which has critics divided. Former National Portrait Gallery head Charles Saumarez-Smith called Freud’s portrait “though-provoking and psychologically penetrating,” while Robert Simon, editor of the British Art Journal at the time, stated of the painting “It makes her [Queen Elizabeth II] look like one of the royal corgis who has suffered a stroke.” (BBC News, 2001).
Regardless, to this day, so many different images and interpretations of Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait circulate the globe that we find it difficult to distinguish who the true Queen Elizabeth II really is. As Strong concludes in his article, “The real Elizabeth Windsor remains an enigma.”
In an effort to discover who exactly the “real” Queen Elizabeth is, one can attend the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition The Queen: Art and Image, which runs through October 21, 2012.
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