Why King Charles' portrait is so grotesque. Hint: It's not just the color

Seeing red? The unsettling horror of the royal portrait may reveal more about how we see him

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 17, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

An official portrait of King Charles III, painted by artist Jonathan Yeo, is pictured during its unveiling, in the Blue Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace in London on May 14, 2024. (AARON CHOWN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
An official portrait of King Charles III, painted by artist Jonathan Yeo, is pictured during its unveiling, in the Blue Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace in London on May 14, 2024. (AARON CHOWN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The explanation is at first glance quite straightforward — it’s that no other color affects us like it. You don’t want to upset anybody? Get yourself some tasteful neutrals. You want to cause a ruckus? Trot out the red. Red is death. It’s violence. It’s sex. It’s beauty. It’s power. (Just ask Taylor.) So when King Charles III unveiled his first official portrait since his coronation earlier this week at Buckingham Palace, of course there were gasps heard round the world. But it’s not just the overabundance of a divisive primary color that makes the image so unnerving. 

I’d describe his style as reminiscent of something you’d find in your overpriced Airbnb or a walk-in shopping mall gallery.

As envisioned by British artist Jonathan Yeo, the king wears the scarlet uniform of the Welsh Guards and rests his hands lightly on his sword. A butterfly flits near his shoulder, to symbolize how, Yeo has stated, “the subject’s role in our public life has transformed.” (And here I thought it was because it's a monarch.) The kicker of the piece, though, is that Charles seems to melt into a background as vivid red as his attire is, making this the perhaps first royal portrait to evoke that meme of Elmo engulfed in flames.

The outsized, 7.5 foot-by-5.5 foot image evoked strong responses as soon as the 75-year-old ruler, who has recently been in treatment for cancer, stepped away from the canvas. “Obsequious, oversized and unaccountably frightening” declared the Washington Post’s critic Sebastian Smee. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones meanwhile slammed the “facile pseudo-portraiture with the cheery serotonin of random color,” while on The Cut, Danielle Cohen wondered if “Perhaps this is an imagined depiction of King Charles rotting in hell in real time.” (Taking a contrarian view, art historian Richard Morris has said that “I really like the portrait,” adding that Yeo had captured the king’s “flaws and mortality.”) You can say this for it; it's not a thing to feel meh about. 

Red is a deeply emotional color. That’s why it’s always been a particular favorite in art, from the walls of Pompeii to the works of Henri Matisse. Francis Bacon used reds and blacks to convey eroticism, horror and beauty, often all at once. Warhol deployed the same colors to illuminate how we relate to our surroundings, whether in car wrecks or soup cans. In portraiture, like Sargent’s Dr. Pozzi at Home or Raphael’s Portrait of a Cardinal, red can communicate faith, sensuality or power. It has a potent beauty unlike any other color.

Earlier this spring, as I regarded the deep reds and blacks of Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals, I found myself so overwhelmed with the sadness of the work that I started to cry. My friend, meanwhile, said she felt a buzzing in her ears and had to leave the room. That’s the genius of a Rothko, though, an artist who could communicate something so intense about his own humanity with abstract strokes and well-deployed colors he provokes a visceral response in the viewer. But what does Yeo’s color statement say about Charles, other than that he has a uniform? 

Yeo has previously painted, with somewhat more restraint, Queen Camilla and Prince Phillip, as well as an array of celebrities. I’d describe his style as reminiscent of something you’d find in your overpriced Airbnb or a walk-in shopping mall gallery, but then, nobody’s ever asked me to paint a king recently. In his career, Yeo has been known to get a little cheeky — his 2007 collage of George W. Bush is fashioned from images culled from porn magazines — but if there’s a recurring theme to the self-taught artist’s body of work, I’d say it’s a palpable want of intimacy. And that, even more than the overwhelming, horror movie poster color choice, is what really makes the Charles portrait so unsettling. 

Charles first sat for Yeo back in June of 2021, and then sat for him three more times, with the final visit occurring in November of 2023. The final work then is a reflection of a period in the king’s life in which he lost his mother, assumed the throne, and faced a presumably serious health diagnosis. Yeo says that the work “reflects exactly who he is, everything he represents and what he's been through.” He must have hit at least some of the mark, because when she first saw the final work, Camilla reportedly told Yeo, “Yes, you've got him.” Got him, what, though, on fire? 

Taking the subject’s own wife’s assessment into mind, I’ve tried reconsidering the painting as a provocative but thoughtful depiction of a son, husband and father, a man stepping into the role he’s been preparing for from birth. A portrait free of background elements and metaphors, save that single butterfly. 

Take away all the red, then, and what remains? There’s an enigmatic half-smile. There’s a weariness. Yet Charles remains, except perhaps to Camilla, unknowable here. There may be only so much honesty you can expect from an image of a leader, but contrast Yeo’s portrait of Charles with Kehinde Wiley’s bold, leafy image of Barack Obama, and the difference is striking. Both are notable for their modern, singular thematic focus. Yet Wiley’s work feels rich in symbolism and spontaneity, an image of a man fixed in history and in a specific moment of his own life. Charles, tellingly, doesn’t stand out in his portrait; he is receding into it. The result is a piece that is at once in your face and ephemeral, a classic royal family bit of showiness and nothingness. And if it has incited strong distaste, it’s not just because it’s ugly. Ugly things can be great; museums are full of them. It’s because it's ugliness that's brutally superficial, in a work that’s trying to act like it’s daring. 

Charles remains, except perhaps to Camilla, unknowable here.

The British monarchy has in recent years undergone an intense public reconsideration, as the cracks in its previously tightly controlled image have become more pronounced. It is an institution that, as evidenced acutely by the spin around both King Charles and Princess Catherine’s cancer diagnoses, the estrangement of Prince Harry and the ongoing embarrassment that is Prince Andrew, seems to be fumbling to figure out its identity and its relevance. It can make front page news with a painting. That doesn't answer the question of what it's actually good for.

It’s one thing to incite strong feelings; that’s easy in art and in celebrity. It’s another to form a real connection. The hollowness of the portrait of Charles rests on both its artist and its subject, neither of whom seem here to have anything really to say but are saying it loudly nonetheless. Maybe Yeo truly has, as Camille says, “got him.” The statement the portrait makes then, of a head and pair of hands swallowed up in their surroundings, is not of shock or horror. It's of a King of England with very little of himself to show.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Commentary James Yeo King Charles Monarchy Portrait Royal Family