Required reading: portraits

The first official portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge has been revealed. But it's only the latest in a long line of portraits to raise more questions than it answers.

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The first official portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge has been unveiled in London's National Portrait Galler. The picture, by the renowned portraitist Paul Emsley – known as a leading proponent of the photorealistic style – has had a mixed reception, with a few critics noting that Kate appears somewhat less youthful that she is. The official line, of course, is that the duchess is delighted with the portrait. But what is behind the unique power of portraits to fascinate and beguile? Time to hit the books.

- There can be little argument over which portrait is the world's most famous. Read Mona Lisa by Donald Sassoon (Harper Collins, Dh83) to learn the story of Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of the wife of a rich Florentine merchant, including its 1911 theft from the Louvre in Paris. The thief, the Italian nationalist Vincenzo Perrugia, was eventually caught when he tried to sell the picture to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

- The Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer must rank a close second, though, when it comes to the creators of famous portraits. That's thanks, in part, to the US novelist Tracey Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring (Harper, Dh47), which weaves a fictional tale around the mid-17th-century portrait – of an unknown model – that has intrigued onlookers for centuries.

- But portraiture is not only painterly art. Leap into the late 20th century by picking up a copy of Portraits (Phaidon Press, Dh88), a collection from the photojournalist Steve Curry, which includes his now iconic 1985 shot of a girl in Afghanistan, which originally took the cover of National Geographic. Meanwhile, to review the work of arguably the greatest portrait painter of our lives, see Lucien Freud: Painting People (National Portrait Gallery Publications, Dh59), which includes pictures of Freud's fellow artist David Hockney and the model Kate Moss.

- But where, after all, does that leave us when it comes to the new portrait of Kate? For a little context try Jennifer Scott's The Royal Portrait: Image and Impact (The Royal Collection, Dh118), which presents a tour of portraits of British monarchs. How does Kate's picture compare to the glorious portraits of years past? You decide.