King Charles: What is the meaning behind the butterfly on his first ever official portrait?

On 14 May 2024, the first portrait of King Charles III since his coronation was unveiled. As expected, the painting triggered a lot of varying reactions.

King Charles portrait Jonathan Yeo
© Chris Jackson / GETTY IMAGES
King Charles portrait Jonathan Yeo

King Charles III’s coronation was held at the beginning of May 2023. Now, just a year later, the monarch has unveiled his first ever official portrait since ascending the throne. The painting done by Jonathan Yeo was revealed in a ceremony held at Buckingham Palace in the presence of Queen Camilla.

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The Telegraph reports that the painting was commissioned in 2020 to celebrate ‘the then-Prince of Wales’s 50 years as a member of The Drapers’ Company’. The artwork was meant to be ready by 2022 but sittings ended up lasting up to November 2023.

The painting is of considerable size — it is believed to be around 8.5ft by 6.5ft and is understood to be hung in Draper’s Hall, in London. The portrait shows King Charles wearing his Welsh Guards uniform. Only his face emerges as it uses natural and realistic colours. The rest of the painting is red, with apparent brushstrokes. On the King’s left shoulder (when you face the painting) flies a black butterfly.

The bold choices made by Yeo have left many people confused as well as curious.

King Charles’ portrait and the intentions behind it

Following the unveiling of this painting, the artist Jonathan Yeo received a lot of press attention. Many publications wanted to speak with him and the painter agreed to some interviews.

Talking to The Telegraph’s Philip Mould, who is a friend of his, Yeo explains:

I wanted to open up his character to other interpretations.
The military is not the thing we will know him for. I was after mystique rather than power - to throw in a bit of fairy dust if you like. To that end, I also changed the tone of red to something more artificial and fantastical

Speaking to the BBC, Yeo continued to explain the bold choices he made. He explains that when working on a painting, specifically a portrait, he wants to ‘[figure] out who someone is and [try] to get that on a canvas.

The portraitist continues that he wanted to include both traditional and modern elements to his work. The traditional is therefore represented through the uniform and the modern carries through the bold colour and the butterfly.

Let’s talk about the butterfly

Many have wondered about the insect’s presence in the painting. Indeed, the background is blurry and the butterfly is distinctive by its clarity. There are several reasons behind the choice.

The first is that it was a suggestion made by King Charles himself. Indeed, though Yeo explained he was mindful of the message the portrait would carry through time and how it was an important piece of King Charles’ legacy, he reminisced about how the idea came about. Talking to the BBC he said he asked the King:

[...] when schoolchildren are looking at this in 200 years and they're looking at the who's who of the monarchs, what clues can you give them?

But there is more to it than legacy. The painter added:

In history of art, the butterfly symbolises metamorphosis and rebirth

Definitely fitting for a portrait started when Charles was Prince of Wales and completed when he was King.

Finally, the butterfly is a nod to King Charles’ lasting interest in the environment and ecology. The type of butterfly painted is a Monarch Butterfly which is an endangered species.

Reactions to the portrait

Katie Razzall, BBC’s Culture and Media Editor wrote that Yeo’s painting is ‘vibrant’. Talking about his own work, the painter says it is ‘distinctive’. Writing about his friend’s work in The Telegraph, Mould calls it ‘artistically and psychologically progressive’.

Those are just a few of the articulate ways the painting has been spoken about. However, as expected, internet users are not as keen to be using big words and sentences to express their opinions.

Searching on X for reactions to the painting, we have found that the majority of comments are negative and confused.

For instance, @GrahamAllen_1 writes:

It is the ugliest thing I have ever seen…

@creepydotorg adds:

Anybody else find the new portrait of King Charles III incredibly disturbing and off-putting?

We’ll stop here. However, one recurring comment needs to be addressed — many have expressed that the painting evoques something devilish and demonic. Doing an analysis of the painting, royal expert @Matta_of_fact on TikTok explains:

The colour is giving me so much pause because, unless Yeo is trying to be a little subversive here, I don’t understand the point of it.
[...] I don’t know the point of taking an already very stately, regal pose, and just drenching it in a blood red.

The royal expert points out that people have also linked back the colour of the portrait to the infamous leaked phone conversations between Charles and Camilla in which he mentions he would like to be ‘reincarnated as a tampon’.

Aside from that, she makes a very interesting point when she says that red ‘is not a very sympathetic colour’. Indeed, Yeo’s intention was to give a sense of who King Charles truly is. Red seems to not have been the best choice.

On that, Jonathan Jones writes for The Guardian:

Who cares about truth when you can beautify?
A serious portrait would look hard and long at Charles (or anyone), not combine facile pseudo-portraiture with the cheery serotonin of random colour.


We all know the king is more complex than this.

What did you think of the portrait?

Read more:

Princess Diana: A look into the past tells us what the royal predicted for the reign of King Charles

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Princess Diana’s will was changed after her death, here’s why


The Telegraph: King unveils first portrait since Coronation

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BBC News: King Charles: First official portrait since coronation is unveiled, painted by Jonathan Yeo

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@matta_of_fact of TikTok

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