Jonathan Yeo, “Sir David Attenborough” (2024), oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 39 3/5 inches (© Jonathan Yeo studio, 2024; image courtesy the artist)

After raising eyebrows for painting the crown red in May, British portrait artist Jonathan Yeo returns with a completed commission of Sir David Attenborough to celebrate the biologist’s 40-year fellowship with the Royal Society. Yeo exchanged King Charles III’s fiery red military uniform and background for a splashy greenish teal setting to portray the scientist and broadcaster in his natural element.

At the age of 98, Attenborough is lauded for decades of filmography and literature exploring the natural wonders of the world. From his BBC Television debut in Zoo Quest (1954–1963) to internationally appreciated projects such as The Blue Planet (2001), Planet Earth (2006), and the 10-part Life documentary series (2009), Attenborough has maintained global praise and attention for his zest for the animal kingdom and for raising awareness on the dire human impact on ecology.

Nestled in the suggestion of a creased armchair with his legs crossed and fingers interlaced, the painted Attenborough looks kindly back at the viewer with a gentle smile and sparkling eyes, aptly signifying his empathetic, fatherly approach to educational storytelling and benevolent advocacy for the planet’s wellbeing. Yeo is undoubtedly a meticulously skilled portrait artist, but the ambiguous background washes are rather distracting and detract from the essence and likeness of his celebrity subjects.

The artist told BBC News that he had chosen the color for the scientist to indicate that he “might be emerging from one of the many habitats he has captured on film during his career.”

While online responses to this latest portrait have been significantly more balanced than those of Yeo’s first high-profile commission so far, it did strike me as a bit odd that King Charles III gets to have a butterfly included in his portrait while Attenborough sits alone despite having committed his life to the natural world. I think he at least deserves a small buddy to keep him company for eternity — perhaps a bird on his shoulder, or at the very least, the inclusion of one of the dozens of animal or plant species named after him.

On the other hand, portraying Attenborough as if he were emerging from a blue-green algae bloom may have been Yeo’s intention all along.

Green? For David Attenborough? Groundbreaking

Sir David Attenborough sitting for Jonathan Yeo (image courtesy the artist)

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