Kehinde Wiley’s new artwork Portrait of a Young Gentleman (2021) is based on Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of the same name, which is commonly known as The Blue Boy (pictured below) which is an icon of the collection at southern California’s Huntgington Library. Blue Boy (1770) follows a tradition of portraiture often referred to as ‘grand manner,’ whose stylistic formula is designed to announce the wealth and status of those who are portrayed.
Wiley often uses the convention of grand manner portraiture in his own work, paint Black and brown models in the same poses struck by sitters in historical paintings. By using portrait format associated with privilege, Wiley glorifies this who are marginalized and who have historically been subjugated. His paintings ask us to reconsider how representation reflects power.
A little background on the artist’s motifs: Kehinde Wiley’s portraits appear to shift back and forth between surface and depth, unlike much historical European art, which sought to create the illusion of spatial recession. Though his figures are painted to appear three dimensional, the artist places them against flat backgrounds often derived from textile or wallpaper designs, such as those produced by Morris & Co., the British firm founded by William Morris in 1861. The phots above shows samples of wallpapers produced by Morris & Co. from the Huntington Library‘s collection. Wiley often enhances and pumps-up the colors to emphasize the patterns decorative qualities. The intricate floral repeats in twined Wiley’s figures, sometimes escaping the background to wrap around the model’s body.
Photograped at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.