What Exactly Is Going on with King Charles' Portrait?

Johnathan Yeo's portrait of King Charles after the unveiling via Smithsonian Mag; Aaron Chown-WPA Pool / Getty Images

Feature image: Johnathan Yeo's portrait of King Charles after the unveiling via Smithsonian Mag; Aaron Chown-WPA Pool / Getty Images

What Exactly Is Going on with King Charles' Portrait?

The British royal family has remained in the global spotlight throughout the year, with discussion and speculation running rampant on social media. Last month, the unveiling of King Charles’ official royal portrait drew waves of criticism and added to the whirlwind of discourse surrounding the royal family’s past and necessity in the modern-day UK. Now, with the recent vandalism of the work by animal rights activists, more eyes are on the king’s portrait than ever.

So, what exactly is going on with King Charles’ portrait? Why has this modern artwork attracted so much worldwide attention and such polarizing reactions? Get current on what the art world and the internet have been saying about this recent event. 

Johnathan Yeo, King Charles III Portrait, 2024 via The Art Newspaper
Johnathan Yeo, King Charles III Portrait, 2024 via The Art Newspaper

Debut and initial reactions

King Charles’ official royal portrait, titled His Majesty King Charles III, was unveiled on May 14, 2014. The painting, created by British artist Jonathan Yeo between June 2021 and November 2023 during Charles' ascension to the throne, is the first official portrait of the king since his coronation in May 2023. 

Standing over eight feet tall, the portrait depicts King Charles in the Welsh Guards uniform, tinted in a striking deep red hue. Only his head and hands are free from the textured red wash. A monarch butterfly on his shoulder represents the king's interest in the environment.

Yeo is known for his contemporary portraits of Malala Yousafzai, Cara Delevinge, and Giancarlo Esposito, among others. GQ calls him “one of the world's most in-demand portraitists.” He previously captured members of the royal family in portraits: Queen Camilla in 2014 when she was Duchess of Cornwall, and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in 2008.

“It was a privilege and pleasure to have been commissioned by The Drapers’ Company to paint this portrait of His Majesty The King, the first to be unveiled since his Coronation,” Yeo said in a statement via the royal family’s Instagram. “When I started this project, His Majesty The King was still His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, and much like the butterfly I’ve painted hovering over his shoulder, this portrait has evolved as the subject’s role in our public life has transformed. I do my best to capture the life experiences and humanity etched into any individual sitter’s face, and I hope that is what I have achieved in this portrait.”

King Charles was said to be “initially mildly surprised” by the color. The bold color choice has resulted in criticism from the public, with some seeing it as disturbingly symbolic of the violence and bloodshed caused by the British Empire and calling it “demonic.” Those close to King Charles, including Queen Camilla, have said the painting accurately represents Charles. Queen Camilla reportedly told Yeo, “Yes, you’ve got him.”

Outside of symbolic meaning, just as many have praised Yeo for his skill in creating texture and depth within the portrait.

“This can be a beautiful painting and also very funny. Two things can be true at the same time,”

user on X, formerly Twitter, said.

June 2024 vandalism incident

On June 11, 2024, a group of animal rights activists from the organization Animal Rising vandalized the painting at London's Philip Mould Gallery with the face of the character “Wallace” from the Wallace and Gromit animated films, along with the caption “No cheese, Gromit. Look at all this cruelty on RSPCA farms!”

The vandalism was designed to bring attention to a report and accompanying footage released by Animal Rising on June 9, 2024, regarding cruelty taking place on Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) farms, including the grave mistreatment of chicks and pigs. According to CNN, the documented mistreatment of animals directly contradicts the RSPCA's assured scheme. This scheme is intended to ensure animal safety on their farms, including guarantees that animals have more living space and are never kept in cages.

King Charles
King Charles' portrait vandalized. Animal Rights/Twitter

Animal Rising likely targeted the painting of the King to criticize his alleged passion for the environment and its public location and ongoing attention in the media. The King has previously stated his love for the “Wallace and Gromit” films by British studio Aardman Animations, and Animal Rising said that the use of the character was a “lighthearted action” in a statement.

Users on social media felt the rather out-of-place, absurd use of Wallace and Gromit characters for the vandalism to be humorous, joking that it had improved the painting. Some even feel that the vandalism of King Charles’ portrait was justified, as it was done in the name of animal rights, did not permanently damage the artwork, and was done to an artwork that many already disliked to begin with. 

The vandalism of King Charles' portrait is among the latest in environmental activists' attacks on art and important artifacts. On May 10, 2024, activists from the organization Just Stop Oil attacked the protective casing of the Magna Carta, housed at the British Library. On June 19, 2024, Just Stop Oil sprayed orange powder paint on the ancient Stonehenge monument.

Art and activism are often intertwined, with both being integral components in the inspiration of the other. Artists will use their art to raise awareness for a cause important to them, while activists have found power in using art as a tool for their activism. The debate surrounding whether or not art vandalism is a good vehicle for protest will likely always be ongoing.

Jonathan Yeo’s vivid rendering of King Charles III highlights the polarizing nature of portraiture. Some may have strong opinions about the subject, the painting’s artistic value, or both. Its vandalism forces us to confront whether defacing a culturally significant piece to spread a message is ever morally acceptable. Together, these elements ensure that King Charles' portrait will be remembered as a memorable moment in 2024 pop culture—a year marked by discussions about royalty.

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