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9 / Portraits

Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares
Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares
Artist / Origin Kehinde Wiley (American, b. 1977).
Region: North America
Date 2005
Material Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 108 in. (274 cm.), W: 108 in. (274 cm.)
Location Rubell Family Collection, Miami, FL
Credit Photo courtesy of the Kehinde Wiley Studio, New York. © Kehinde Wiley

expert perspective

Kehinde WileyArtist

Additional Resources

Golden, Thelma, et al. The World Stage: Africa Lagos-Dakar Kehinde Wiley. New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2008.

Kehinde Wiley Studio Web site. www.kehindewiley.com.

“Passing/Posing: Kehinde Wiley Paintings.” In Exhibitions. The Brooklyn Museum Web site. http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions.

Powell, Richard J. Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

“Recognize! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture.” In Exhibits. Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery Web site. http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/recognize/paintings.html.

Wiley, Kehinde, and Brian Keith Jackson. Black Light. Brooklyn: Powerhouse Books, 2009.

Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares

» Kehinde Wiley (American, b. 1977).

American painter Kehinde Wiley creates large and conceptually complex portraits.

He reinterprets old master history, religious, and mythological paintings, source images that celebrate the white European elite. His new images replace the central figures in these pictures with vivid portraits of young, often disenfranchised African American men who wear their own street clothes. Wiley finds his models by approaching strangers in neighborhoods like Harlem in New York or South Central Los Angeles. Back in his studio, the models choose the portraits they would like to inhabit by looking through art books. In this way, Wiley enters into a dialogue about formal, heroic portraiture with people who often have very little access to fine art.

Wiley’s Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares was originally part of the artist’s “Rumors of War” show, an exhibition consisting of four grand equestrian portraits modeled on seventeenth- and nineteenth-century military-themed canvases. Wiley based this particular image on a Diego Velázquez painting of the same title hanging in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wiley does not disclose the names of his portrait subjects. Nevertheless, this anonymous man, dressed in a red hoodie, khakis, and sneakers, accrues the trappings of seventeenth-century military might (a baton of command) and social rank (a sword indicative of nobility). A steed, with front legs upraised, points to the rider’s control of the animal, a metaphor for his ability to rule. By placing a black man in a seat of traditional white male power, Wiley makes a social as well as an artistic statement.

Although Wiley borrows the horse, the subject’s pose and accessories, and the foreground landscape from the original Velázquez painting, he also looks to other sources for inspiration in his art. For instance, he points to the work of African photographer Seydou Keïta as an influence. Keïta’s portraits present their sitters with a sense of dignity that Wiley finds missing in traditional representations of black men and women by European artists. Aesthetically, Wiley’s interest in patterned backgrounds can also be linked to Keïta, whose photographs frequently include textiles printed with diverse motifs. The Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares features an ornate filigree backdrop that emphasizes the picture plane. The juxtaposition of this decorative surface and Wiley’s volumetric figures creates a tension that activates the painting on another level.

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