10 Things You Didn’t Know About King Charles’s Official Portrait

Updated: May 30, 2024

Why is it red? We're unveiling the most surprising facts about the King Charles portrait.

When the first official oil portrait of King Charles as reigning monarch was unveiled at Buckingham Palace in London, it caused quite a stir, both in the U.K. and around the world. Dividing royal fans (and anyone who follows the news), the latest King Charles portrait breaks from royal tradition thanks to its vivid red backdrop. British artist Jonathan Yeo, the man behind the portrait, spent three years painting the piece and has since received both praise and criticism. While some have called it mysterious and powerful, others are quite literally seeing red, making more cynical connections between the deep red hue and the “blood” spilled by colonizers.

But what does the monarch think of the painting? It’s not just the vivid red that has people talking. Read on to find out everything you need to know about this unique image, including its hidden symbols.

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1. It’s King Charles’s first oil portrait since taking the throne

The much-talked-about painting was revealed almost one year after the coronation of King Charles, which means that it is his first oil portrait as the British monarch. The larger-than-life painting measures an impressive 7.5 feet by 5.5 feet and was commissioned by the Drapers’ Company in London, an institution that collects royal portraits, to celebrate Charles’s 50 years as a member.

Before the portrait was presented to the world in May 2024, there had been only a handful of official photographs of Charles as king, including the one that is now hanging in public buildings around the U.K. in an effort to celebrate his reign.

2. This King Charles portrait is almost entirely red

Let’s face the elephant in the room: The massive painting is bright red. According to Yeo, the color was meant to provide a “contemporary jolt.” “My aim was to make reference to the traditions of royal portraiture but in a way that reflects a 21st-century monarchy and, above all else, to communicate the subject’s deep humanity,” Yeo said when unveiling his work. In an ITV interview, he added that he was also “playing with this idea of mysticism and of the royal family being a bit different from us in some way.”

The red fades from the king’s uniform into the background of the painting. Not only was Charles the Prince of Wales when Yeo started working on the portrait, but he was also Regimental Colonel in the Welsh Guards. And in keeping with the tradition of royal portraits showing male monarchs in uniform, King Charles is painted here in the striking red coat of the Welsh Guards and leaning on a ceremonial sword in front of him.

3. This isn’t artist Jonathan Yeo’s first time painting royal family members

Yeo is considered one of the most highly regarded artists of our time. Prior to the king, he painted Hollywood stars Nicole Kidman, Idris Elba, Paris Hilton, model Cara Delevingne and British naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, among many others.

And while King Charles is certainly his most prestigious royal commission to date, it wasn’t Yeo’s first time working with the royal family. Queen Camilla and the late Prince Philip also previously posed for Yeo.

4. Charles became king halfway through sitting for the portrait

Yeo confirmed that he had four sittings with King Charles at Highgrove House, the family residence of King Charles and Queen Camilla, and Clarence House between June 2021, when he was still Prince of Wales, and November 2023, when he was already king. Yeo worked on the painting in his London studio with the help of photographs in between sittings.

According to the BBC, King Charles had to stand leaning on his sword for about 40 minutes during each session. Yeo described Charles as being in “good spirits” during the sessions and stressed his “great sense of humor.”

What’s more, “he stood impressively still and didn’t get distracted like some sitters do.” Talking to ITV, the painter said he had noticed a change in Charles after he had taken the throne: “When he became king halfway through … I was able to see the shift in the body language. To be able to visibly see someone gain stature and become more comfortable in themselves is a really interesting thing.”

5. The portrait features a butterfly landing on the king’s shoulder

Detail of the King Charles portrait by Jonathan Yeo showing the face and butterfly on his shoulderAnadolu/Getty Images

Beyond its distinct color, a key feature in the King Charles portrait is the butterfly landing on the monarch’s left shoulder. As Yeo has explained, it was Charles who came up with the idea during their initial chats about the portrait. Initially, the butterfly was meant to be a nod to the king’s interest in environmental issues, which “he has championed most of his life and certainly long before they became a mainstream conversation,” Yeo has said. However, when Charles’s mother, Queen Elizabeth, died, and he became king, the butterfly became even more fitting. “In art history, the butterfly is the symbol of metamorphosis,” explained Yeo.

And the painter didn’t just choose any butterfly to sit on Charles’s shoulder—he chose the aptly named monarch butterfly, the largest of its kind in the U.K., which originally made its way to the island from North America.

6. King Charles considers the portrait “remarkable”

One would think that being king gave Charles the right to check out his own portrait first. However, it seems Charles only saw the final result when the painting was officially unveiled to the world. As Yeo told the BBC, the monarch got a glimpse in its “half-done state.” His first reaction? “He was initially mildly surprised by the strong color, but otherwise, he seemed to be smiling approvingly,” Yeo said.

When both the king and the artist came back together to present the painting on May 14, 2024, King Charles said it was “remarkable how it had turned out.”

7. Queen Camilla believes the portrait has captured King Charles

Yeo has also received the approval of King Charles’s wife, Queen Camilla, whom he painted in 2014 when she was still the Duchess of Cornwall. Queen Camilla was curious to see how the painting was coming together and showed up halfway through the sittings to have a look for herself.

According to the BBC, she immediately liked what she saw and told the artist: “Yes, you’ve got him.” Mission accomplished for Yeo, whose goal as an artist is, as he says, “figuring out who someone is and trying to get that on a canvas.”

8. Yeo and the king share a passion for the arts

When sitting for a portrait, especially a royal one, it’s only natural to spend a lot of time with the painter. Luckily, it seems King Charles and Yeo had a lot to talk about. The monarch is known to have a weak spot for the arts—he regularly attends ballet and opera performances, has invited painters to join him on his royal tours, and adores singer-songwriters Leonard Cohen and Barbra Streisand. He also co-founded a drawing school and an academy for traditional arts.

What’s more, King Charles is a self-taught artist. He uses watercolors, and some of his favorite subjects to paint include countryside scenes and royal residences.

9. The painting will be displayed in a private art venue

King Charles’s portrait was initially displayed at the Philip Mould Gallery in London, but it’s scheduled to be moved to Drapers’ Hall in East London at the end of August. This art space already houses numerous royal works, including sculpture busts of the late queen and King Charles, as well a portrait of the Duke of Wellington.

The downside of the new location is that the building is not generally open to the public but rather rented out for weddings and other glittery events. Nonetheless, provided there’s no celebration going on the day you’d like to visit, it’s possible to arrange a tour in advance.

10. There are roughly 170 King Charles portraits to date

While the latest King Charles portrait was obviously the talk of town when it was presented, it’s not the only one the British monarch has sat for throughout the decades. The National Portrait Gallery in London has recorded 170 official portraits of the king to this day. This might sound like a lot, but compared to his mother, Charles has some catching up to do.

The gallery lists 973 official portraits of Queen Elizabeth II. Polish artist Barbara Kaczmarowska Hamilton was the last one to capture the late monarch in several sittings—her portrait was commissioned for the queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022, just a few months before Queen Elizabeth II passed away.

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