Portrait of George III, painted by the Englishman William Buchy, is an oil on canvas piece on permanent display at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama.
Painted in 1761, the work displays the king in a gold vest and a red cape adorned with white feathers. While many parts of the aristocrat's dress echo back to a more ornate past, there is no mistaking the difference between this wealthy Rococo style of attire and the gaudy Baroque apparel seen in earlier royal portraits, such as those of France's Louis XIV.
The king rests one gold-cuffed hand on a nearby table and the other on his right hip; his face is drawn into a serious expression and his pursed lips and delicate eyes stare out to meet the gaze of whomever happens to stride by the painting. His crown, the birthright that separates him from other, less important men, sits idle on the table to his side, partially hidden from view by the folds of his cape but still slightly visible—perhaps only to remind the audience of the identity of the subject while demanding their quiet respect.
In typical Rococo style, the subject of the painting is made obvious through the use of a dark, faded background and careful, deliberate lighting techniques. One can faintly make out a curtain behind the king's left shoulder and a wide column behind his right, but almost all detail and light is focused on the king.
Also in typical Rococo form, Buchy uses light colors and avoids loud, vibrant shades. A soft glow enshrouds the king, calling for even lighter colors in some areas. Pastels such as soft greens, rich reds, and a noticeable yet quiet shade of gold make up the palette for most of the work.
Little detail or form is given to the wall and molding behind George III and no action is taking place to draw one's gaze from the subject, who is poised in the center of the work. Even the royal symbol, the partially visible crown, is much less distinct than any direct feature of the king, such as his eyes, cape, shoes, and the hand he rests on the nearby table. The floor of the palace is visible beneath him, but its simple square design and light color melt into the background as one looks further behind the king toward a distant area obscured by increasingly darker and sketchier strokes.
King George is framed by the column to his right, the curtains to his left, and the floor beneath him. No ceiling is visible in the portrait, so the area above the king's head remains unframed and the additional headroom actually serves to make the monarch look slightly smaller in this life-size picture.
Contrasting the style in which the painting was produced, a gilded and distinctly Baroque table leg peeks out from below George's cape, which covers most of the table. The leg, which ends in the shape of an animal claw, is fairly straight and rises to meet the table which, despite being covered by the cape, comes to a point and is noticeably square—a shape almost completely verboten in Rococo furniture.
Like the subjects of most royal portraiture, George III relies on his lessons of poise and posture to determine his stance in this painting. Pulling his gold-buckled black shoes together in the universal dance "first position," the king holds his body straight and rigid in a form fit for his posterity and stature, yet his posture is more casual than one might see in pre-Rococo portraits of monarchs and other aristocrats.
Not draped elegantly as one might expect, the king's cape lies on the floor in a somewhat crumpled, unkempt fashion, as if to show less time had been spent in preparation for the portrait than spent by other less modest aristocrats. Some areas of the cape show their exposed shiny white lining as they lay on the floor.
The king displays a medal on his left breast, showing enough of the object to reveal its presence, but not pushing it forward in an arrogant manner. The medal suggests that the king is brave, while its position prevents him from looking rude or boastful.
The king also wears a small pin on his vest near the center of his chest. Although sketchy in appearance, one can barely make out the figure of a horse in mid stride, frozen in time and on display—just as the subject of the portrait, George III, awaits the creation of his own immortal likeness, a likeness that will long outlive the actual man.
Only minor detail is given to the king's sword, which hangs dutifully at his left hip and is partially obscured by the same portion of cape that hides his crown. Neither drawn as if ready for battle nor displayed as if to threaten or show power, the blurry weapon fades into the king's more detailed gold vest against which it rests.
Conversely, much time was given to the king's cape; obvious care was taken to capture every fold and crease from where it is drawn high around his neck with long gold ropes with red and gold tassels to the table and floor below. Delicate gold cuffs envelop the king's forearms and wrists, showing what appears to be an almost floral pattern (which would be typical for this period in art history). Although ornamented with massive amounts of expensive gold thread and exotic white feathers, the costume is obviously Rococo as it almost appears plain when compared to the immensely ornate clothing worn in earlier portraits of kings and other monarchs.
As most life-size portraits do, Portrait of George III creates an intense vertical line from the subject's feet on the palace floor to his head several inches below the top of the painting. This line is disrupted and even weakened, however, by the king's loose body language and casual posture. The hand on his hip gives a sense of impatience, as if he is needed elsewhere and does not have the time to have the portrait done. At the same time, the king's other hand sits atop the table's edge, almost appearing to grip the side, rather than just rest upon it.
Through this gesture, a strong parallel line connects the king to the table, his source for support (perhaps suggesting that he could not stand without it). This conveys a powerful image of a man worried and frustrated by both the skirmishes in Britain's New World colonies and his own inability to control what would soon develop into a victory for American independence and a substantial loss for both Britain and George III.
Combined with the shallow expression on his face, the proud king can almost seem timid, as well. While the artist's choice to have his subject look forward in this portrait does create a more approachable, casual image, its "I am only a man" imagery almost implies that the king is uncomfortable with or undeserving of his position of leadership and power. Painted only fifteen years before the American Revolution officially began with the formal Declaration of Independence, this portrait provides a glimpse at how growing dissent and tension in the colonies plagued an impotent monarch through much of his life.
Buchy's Portrait of George III is an excellent example of Rococo art, especially when compared to aristocratic portraits in the earlier Baroque style. The king's casual stance, less ornamented attire, and willingness to look directly at the audience (rather than at an angle), all display the characteristics of this new style. Buchy uses the typical Rococo tactics to frame his subject, such as specific lighting and a darker, "fuzzier" background. Distancing the king from his crown, palace, and other distractions, the artist is able to force the audience to focus on one thing: the man, George III. Combining the subtle nuances of this painting with the torrid history of the subject makes the work comes alive with the vivid picture of a man who fought to stop the birth of a new nation and lost himself in the process.