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King Charles' polarizing portrait, explained by the artist himself

Art experts, like many others around the world, appear to be split in their opinions about the portrait painted by British artist Jonathan Yeo.
/ Source: TODAY

After a dramatic new portrait of King Charles III caused a stir around the world earlier this week, many art experts are weighing in with their opinions about the painting.

The bold portrait, painted by British artist Jonathan Yeo, is the first official portrait of the 75-year-old king since his May 2023 coronation. It was unveiled inside Buckingham Palace on May 14.

The portrait, drenched in the color red, depicts Charles wearing the red military uniform of the Welsh Guards, as he sits with his hand on his sword, amid a vibrant red background. A monarch butterfly hovers over the king's right shoulder.

Yeo told the BBC that Charles himself approved of the contemporary portrait. He noted that when the king first saw a "half-done" version of the painting he was "initially mildly surprised by the strong color but otherwise he seemed to be smiling approvingly."

Camilla, the queen consort, also seemed to like the portrait, telling Yeo, "Yes, you’ve got him," when she first saw it, the artist recalled.

Still, like royal watchers around the globe, many in the art world are polarized in their response to Yeo's portrait.

Art critic Richard Morris wrote on X, “I really like the portrait of King Charles by Jonathan Yeo — the go-to artist for slightly edgy but convincingly recognizable contemporary portraits; before photography, to have a great painter capture your real appearance you accepted the revelation of your flaws and your mortality. It’s what Yeo captures here.”

On the other hand, artist Robert Brinkerhoff, who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, tells TODAY.com he was surprised by the portrait when he saw it online.

"The instant I saw it, having no idea what to expect, I literally heard the word 'blood' in my head. It was a bit of a shock — all that red, dripped here and there and scrubbed on and scrubbed off," Brinkerhoff says.

Other art critics called it a "stylistic mess"

King Charles III (accompanied by his Page of Honour Lord Oliver Cholmondeley)
King Charles III in a red robe at a service of dedication for the Order of The British Empire on May 15, 2024 in London, England.Max Mumby/Indigo / Getty Images

The king's "mottled" face and hands, which seemed to jump out from the background, says Brinkerhoff, add to the portrait's weird quality.

"The face is gentle, weary and a little sad. I feel less empathy for the face when I study the hands— which are a bit like talons. They’re not painted badly — they just evoke something a little monstrous to me," he tells TODAY.com.

Read on to learn more about what inspired Jonathan Yeo's painting of King Charles III.

Yeo wanted to put a 21st century spin on a traditional royal portrait

Yeo, who has previously painted the queen consort and the late Duke of Edinburgh, told the BBC that he wanted his portrait of King Charles to break with the past.

Yeo opted to depict Charles in his military uniform of the Welsh Guards as he would be appear in the traditional royal portraiture of days past.

Charles was made Regimental Colonel of the Welsh Guards in 1975 and holds the position today.

He mixed it up, however, with his bold red color palette and the addition of the symbolic butterfly.

Yeo wanted the painting to “make reference to the traditions of royal portraiture but in a way that reflects a 21st century monarchy," he said in a statement released by Buckingham Palace on Dec. 14.

The symbolism of the color red

The royal family posted the first image of Yeo’s portrait May 14 on its official Instagram account. Many fans of the monarchy were shocked by the painting's blast of red color.

“I’m sorry but his portrait looks like he’s in hell,” one person wrote in the comments. 

"Without sounding rude this is the worst royal portrait I’ve ever seen," wrote another.

Others remarked that the red color reminded them of blood, violence and passion.

Brinkerhoff wonders if the red was meant to symbolize the violence in the royal family's past, or perhaps the emotions Charles has had to publicly suppress as one of the family's most prominent members.

"Is it the blood that has been shed as a result of British colonialism for centuries?" he says. "Is it the rarely seen, passionate emotion of a man constrained by generations of stiff convention and regal duty?"

Interpretations abound — but on his website, Yeo provided insight as to the use of the “vivid color.”

The red shades are meant to “echo the uniform’s bright red tunic, not only resonating with the royal heritage found in many historical portraits but also injecting a dynamic, contemporary jolt into the genre with its uniformly powerful hue.”

The meaning of the butterfly

Yeo included the image of a monarch butterfly in his portrait to illustrate Charles' evolving role in recent years, he told the BBC.

“In history of art, the butterfly symbolizes metamorphosis and rebirth,” explained Yeo, who was commissioned by The Drapers’ Company to paint Charles portrait in 2020 when he was still the Prince of Wales.

The butterfly, said Yeo, also represents the king's work for environmental causes, which “he has championed most of his life and certainly long before they became a mainstream conversation."

His website says the butterfly is a "visual contrast to the military steeliness of the uniform and sword." Butterflies also symbolize rebirth and transformation, representing Charles' transition into becoming king while the portrait was being created.

Yeo told the BBC the butterfly was Charles' own idea, chosen as a symbol for his reign.

“I said: ‘When schoolchildren are looking at this in 200 years and they’re looking at the who’s who of the monarchs, what clues can you give them?’

“He said: ‘What about a butterfly landing on my shoulder?’” It's worth noting the butterfly is a monarch.

Did royal family anticipate the intense reaction to the portrait?

Neither Yeo nor the royal family have commented on the divided response to Yeo's polarizing portrait.

"Charles himself is no stranger to art, so I think he knew what the effect and the reaction would be," Brinkerhoff says. "In that sense, it’s a pretty bold move — maybe even a little honorable — and I think that’s worth reflecting on. Controversy is usually more important than convention in art, even when the reactions are harsh.

"This is my favorite thing about the painting: it depicts a man with a lifetime of inherited history: he may be conceding all the weight of social constraints, public attention and bloody pursuit of power," he adds.

But ultimately, it's up to interpretation.