Blood, flames, and horror movies: The evocative imagery of King Charles’s portrait

A man stands silhouetted with his back to the camera and looking at a painting twice his height, of King Charles in a Welsh Guards uniform with a butterfly at his shoulder, all in shades of red except his face, which looks friendly.
A visitor looks at the new official portrait of King Charles III, painted by British artist Jonathan Yeo, displayed at the Philip Mould gallery, on Pall Mall, central London, on May 16, 2024 | Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images

The furor over the painting points to the Crown’s larger problems.

As far back as the 1500s, the British Royal Family has used formal portraits to project a positive and authoritative image. Their most recent entry, however, is giving audiences a very different impression, the latest in a series of public relations blunders at a tenuous time for the monarchy.

The new portrait of King Charles, by British artist Jonathan Yeo, features the monarch looking on serenely while wearing a red Welsh Guards uniform against a red backdrop. Aside from his hands and face, the portrait is covered in red paint strokes, a visual that for some onlookers, recalled flames, blood, and horror films.

“It looks like he’s bathing in blood,” a commenter quipped on an Instagram post announcing the portrait. “To me it gives the message the monarchy is going up in flames or the king is burning in hell,” another commenter wrote.

In his description of the painting, Yeo says a chief aim was to capture Charles’s evolution as a leader and ascension to the throne. The painting also includes a butterfly hovering above Charles’s right shoulder, an addition the king reportedly suggested himself to illustrate his transformation and commitment to environmental causes.

For some, the bold palette of the painting conjured more brutal aspects of the monarchy’s history, however. Certain observers have interpreted the work as a reminder of the Crown’s bloody advancement of colonialism. “It almost alludes to some sort of massacre that he’s been part of,” Tabish Khan, a London art critic, told Business Insider. “Given the royal family’s history and ties to colonialism and imperialism, it’s not hard for people to look at it and then make the leap that it’s somehow related to that.”

Others have dabbled in memes referencing The Picture of Dorian Gray, the painting of a villain from Ghostbusters 2, and the anecdote Charles once told about wanting to be Camilla’s tampon.

And while much of the response has been poking fun at the portrait, the controversy also points to deeper issues the monarchy faces, as it navigates an uncertain transition after Queen Elizabeth II’s death and grapples with its own past.

The painting aimed to capture Charles’s transformation

Yeo, an established artist who has also painted former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair as well as Charles’s father Prince Philip and his wife Queen Camilla, sat with Charles four times for his first portrait as King.

“Royal portraits in the past have had an important role to play in signifying power and projecting an image,” the BBC’s Katie Razzall writes. “They were part of the tools used to ensure the survival of the monarch.”

One of Yeo’s aims with the painting, which he began in 2021, was to underscore Charles’s essence as a person, how he’s changed as he’s taken on the role of king and the struggles he’s endured. “My interest is really in figuring out who someone is and trying to get that on a canvas,” Yeo told the BBC.

Yeo’s website describes the color scheme as injecting a “dynamic, contemporary jolt” to the work, differentiating it from past portraits. The red is also inspired by the bright red color of the Welsh Guards uniform and is intended to give a nod to Charles’s military service; he became a colonel in the Welsh Guards in 1975. It’s also a color Yeo has used in the past, with paintings of actor Giancarlo Esposito and World War II veteran Geoffrey Pattinson featuring similar color schemes.

Many of Yeo’s past works are composed much like Charles’s, with one dominant color serving as the background and the subject’s face seemingly floating in the foreground.

According to Yeo, both the king and queen had previously seen parts of the painting and appeared to respond positively at the time. “Yes, you’ve got him,” Camilla reportedly said about his capturing Charles’s personality. The artist notes that Charles was surprised by the color, but broadly seemed to like the unfinished work he saw. In a video clip of the official unveiling, Charles himself appears initially startled by the painting.

The portrait’s reception recalls the monarchy’s problems

Much like US presidential portraits, the paintings of UK monarchs are intended to send a message about their leadership and character.

In one of former President Barack Obama’s portraits, artist Kehinde Wiley featured him surrounded by green foliage, a move that honored his upbringing in different places, and that marked a break from past presidential portraits.

The red in King Charles’s portrait had much less flattering connotations for some observers, though, as they see allusions to the country’s colonialism. For centuries, the British Empire violently seized power in numerous countries — including India, Kenya, and New Zealand — and the monarchy was a key symbol of its authority in those places.

Even today, the king is still considered a figurehead, and the “head of state” in 15 independent countries that are part of the British Commonwealth. Many — including Jamaica — are actively working to remove Charles as their official “head of state,” a role that’s purely symbolic but nonetheless represents Britain’s history of oppression.

In this capacity, and others, the modern monarchy remains a key symbol of the UK’s governance, even though royals don’t have practical policymaking power like Parliament and the prime minister.

As such, many experts and people from former colonies have been eager to see the monarchy do more to reckon with its imperial history, and to more explicitly acknowledge it.

“Imagine a very different kind of monarchy, where in the name of decency rather than politics, a monarch could say things like, ‘We acknowledge and regret the role of Britain, the British government and the British monarchy in slavery and colonialism.’ That kind of moral leadership could have such a different impact in the world,” Priya Satia, a history professor at Stanford, previously told Time.

The portrait is, in a sense, the least of the monarchy’s recent problems as it navigates a difficult transition following Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign. There was the awkward rupture with Charles’s youngest son Prince Harry and his wife, American actress Meghan Markle. Charles publicly disclosed a cancer diagnosis in February. His daughter-in-law, Princess Catherine of Wales, revealed her own cancer diagnosis in March, following months of rampant speculation about her well-being.

What was once a canvas for projecting royal authority has instead become another reckoning with what the monarchy stands for and the brutal history it’s failed to fully confront.

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