Art Through Time: A Global View
Portraits Art: Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares
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.
Kehinde Wiley, Artist
“Painting—portrait painting, especially, is a type of propaganda, let’s face it. There’s a type of great collusion with regard to traditional portraiture. How will I look my best? What’s my best angle? How am I adorning myself? What’s behind me? So much of that has to do with constructing a narrative of power.
I love the old masters—that’s how I learned how to paint. I remember going to school as a kid around eleven years of age. I would spend afternoons, long afternoons, poring through these paintings, analyzing why they were painted the way that they are. I had no idea what was the deal with so many lapdogs, and jewels, and powdered wigs.
As an African American I’m obsessed with the fact that I’m in love with something that I almost feel guilty about loving. I’m messing with the old masters. What I’m basically doing is copies of those paintings, but instead of using the original figures, I’m using young African American men that I find in the streets. In order to make the paintings, I’m stopping guys who are minding their own business. And asking them to come to my studio, go through a collection of art history books, decide which is their favorite painting. We then proceed to have a photo shoot. Usually artists make all the decisions, pose this way or pose that way. I think it is important for the model to do all of the deciding. It’s, I think, about choice in that sense. I think my paintings are about the power to say, ‘This is the way that I want to be seen.’
Black men in America occupy a very interesting space. It has to do with both curiosity and revulsion by and large. Historically we have been depicted as something to be feared, but we are also the number one face of what it means to be a young American. My type of portraiture is in some ways concerned with the very political righting of wrongs. But then there are moments when I’m bored by that, which is to say, what gives me the right to preach? I’m, I’m not exploiting my subjects, I’m not changing the world, but at the same time, I’m hopelessly in love with painting.”
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.