Opinion: What I noticed immediately about King Charles’ portrait

Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

King Charles III’s first official portrait was unveiled this week, and I’m sure his majesty would agree it’s a stirring sight. The larger-than-life painting by Jonathan Yeo depicts Charles from the mid-thigh upwards. He’s wearing his crimson Welsh Guards uniform, and both hands rest on the hilt of his sword. Almost the entire canvas, besides his hands and head, is awash in a fiery red. He’s looking straight ahead, the shadow of a wry smile on his lips. A butterfly hovers over his right shoulder.

Holly Thomas - Holly Thomas
Holly Thomas - Holly Thomas

Yeo has offered a partial explanation of his artistic decisions. The butterfly, he said, represents how Charles’ “role in our public life has transformed.” Apparently it was Charles’ idea, the product of some impressive reverse engineering during which Yeo picked the King’s brain for visual clues with which future schoolchildren might dissect the portrait’s meaning. “He said, ‘What about a butterfly landing on my shoulder?’” Yeo recalled.

Unfortunately for Yeo, Charles and the butterfly, nothing about the portrait has garnered nearly so much comment as its dominant color. One commentator on the Royal Family’s official Instagram feed remarked that it looked as though the King was “burning in hell,” while another said it gives the impression that he “has a lot of blood on his hands.” One less earnest observer wrote, “Tampax the third,” perhaps in reference to one of the King’s more embarrassing appearances in the British press.

Intriguing though these insights are, the first thing I noticed about the painting wasn’t its menstrual overtones, but what they obscured. The King’s body is almost entirely opaque. He’s fading into the background, the outline of his ceremonial uniform blurred out of focus. It’s a fitting representation of a man once known for choleric asides, now obliged by his elevated role to keep his personal feelings private. He’s withdrawn, but his aristocratic silhouette remains.

Like most Brits, I’ve known Charles as a prince for most of my life. His reputation as a frustrated king-in-waiting was exacerbated by his tendency to voice his opinions on subjects close to his heart. He petitioned government ministers at the highest levels in his notorious secret “black spider memos,” offering his thoughts on issues from the Iraq War to environmental interests. Months before Queen Elizabeth II’s death, he was overheard denouncing the government’s “appalling” Rwanda policy.

Now bound by the monarch’s constitutional duty to remain politically neutral, Charles has reined in those impulses and gone through the prescribed motions. In his first speech to parliament as head of state last November, he was obliged to announce Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s promise to grant annual North Sea oil and gas exploration licenses, plus a bill banning councils from passing environmental rules the government sees as penalizing motorists. It can’t have sat well with a man who, in 2021, described COP26 as the “last chance saloon” to combat climate change.

Besides these ceremonial outings, Charles has recently been less prominent in British public life than ever, particularly following the announcement in February of his cancer diagnosis. He’s understandably kept a low profile since — blending, like his artistic avatar, into the background. But while his public persona has undoubtedly evolved, his private attitudes appear less flexible.

Charles has long made it clear that he intends to usher in a more streamlined, cost-effective monarchy that relies less on taxpayer-funded handouts. However, as Tina Brown notes in her excellent book “The Palace Papers,” this wouldn’t entail much sacrifice for the late Queen’s eldest son.

Charles’ private wealth dwarfs that of any other member of his family. As Prince of Wales, his income was largely generated by the Duchy of Cornwall, which owns 52,449 hectares (more than 200 square miles) of land, including extensive farming, residential and commercial properties. In November of last year, the Guardian revealed that another of his hereditary estates, the Duchy of Lancaster, has been profiting from the deaths of thousands of its tenants by collecting financial assets owned by people who die without a will or next of kin. Buckingham Palace did not comment to the Guardian. A representative for the Duchy of Lancaster indicated that after his mother’s death, the king endorsed extending the policy of using “bona vacantia” funds on “restoration and repair of qualifying buildings in order to protect and preserve them for future generations.”

In the last 10 years alone, that system has reportedly made King Charles more than £60 million ($76 million) richer. Last year, the Guardian estimated his total net worth at around £1.8 billion (about $2.3 billion). This puts Charles’ financial position in stark contrast with those members of his extended family who’ve historically relied on the monarch’s generosity to make ends meet. Paying one’s own way is significantly easier when one is a landed billionaire.

Considering that Charles has displayed no intention of splitting his inheritance with his siblings (or anyone else), it seems safe to assume that his private outlook has not evolved alongside his public persona. This, I think, is the contrast that Yeo best captures in his new work. Charles’ body is camouflaged and a little withdrawn, but his gaze remains clear, the expression instantly recognizable. As Queen Camilla apparently remarked as soon as it was unveiled: “Yes, you’ve got him.”

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com