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Kehinde Wiley’s stately new painting, A Portrait of a Young Gentleman (2021), recently commissioned by the Huntington, depicts a statuesque, casually-dressed Black man positioned in a classical contrapposto stance, his smartwatch-bedazzled wrist resting against his tilted hips. His formal pose, a standard convention of 18th-century European portraiture, belies the informal nonchalance of his dress, which uniquely embodies the sartorial vernacular of 21st century California: a beaded bracelet, a tie-dyed T-shirt, blue athletic shorts, and black Vans (without socks). A black baseball cap adorned with the American flag dangles upside down from his right hand—another firm emblem of place in this contemporary mise en scène. He’s regal and immaculately painted yet perfectly mundane. The contours of his ordinariness—he’s a young man (likely a millennial) who, as far as we can deduce, is not born of high privilege—speaks to the significance of his representation, both here on the walls of the Hungtington’s portrait gallery, ornamented as it is with various opulent depictions of white European aristocracy, and within institutional spaces more broadly.
A Portrait of a Young Gentleman was commissioned as a direct response to Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy (ca. 1770)—formerly of the same title and arguably the museum’s most renowned work—which portrays a white, outwardly wealthy, precocious young boy clothed in an ostentatious, cerulean blue satin suit. He’s similarly poised contrapposto, with his left hand cocked against his hip while his right hand, precious in a white glove, clasps a fanciful hat with a cascade of elaborate plumage. His gaze—direct, dauntless, and self-affected—suggests a belief in the myth of superiority that buttresses the entitlements of his class. Compositionally, the figure appears to glowingly ascend forward from his darkened background, a vague diorama of tawny countryside with hints of a verdant thicket—a painterly attempt at equating social hierarchy with natural order. Rebuffing this veil of realism, Wiley’s interpretation flattens perceptions of background and foreground completely, instead weaving his figure in and out of an elaborately rendered (and nearly fluorescent) floral motif. Here, his collapse of both dimensional and gestural space alludes to a deeper thesis: despite a presumed allegiance to truth and likeness, historical portrait painting is an idealized, allegorical rendition of the real rather than an obedient reflection of it.
In fact, both portraits perform a contextual sleight of hand with regard to the veracity of their subjects. Despite his trappings of privilege, The Blue Boy depicts a mere figment of the gentry class—he’s actually a non-patrician model believed to be the artist’s nephew. His flamboyant costume and idyllic surroundings represent visual ciphers common to 18th-century portraiture—these painterly apologues were intended to project favorable notions of nobility, thereby reshaping a portrait into an illustrative archetype. Wiley seizes upon this: his subject is an unnamed young man whom the artist painted in Dakar, Senegal, a fact that complicates his rendering of a figure who appears to epitomize a uniquely Californian brand of Americana. The truth of the work’s sitter illuminates Wiley’s portrait as a product of contemporary globalization, the socio-historical context of which remains inextricably entwined with the wounds and ravages of colonialism.
Indeed, the sheer breadth of Anglo-European colonialism, as well as the extravagant wealth it bestowed upon its benefactors, is directly evidenced in European portraiture of the 18th century—including in paintings displayed adjacent to A Portrait of a Young Gentleman. To that end, The Blue Boy can be viewed as a minor point of departure in the narrative surrounding Wiley’s portrait, the commission of which ultimately functions as a public-facing opportunity for the museum to redraft its relationship to its own predominantly white collection. Museum commissions can be read as a form of institutional virtue-signaling, and commissioned portraiture more specifically—historically wielded as a visual cudgel for embellishing perceptions of status and power—is uniquely reflective of the nuanced social mores of its time. While our contemporary neoliberal ethos espouses an ethic of inclusivity, the imperative work of decolonizing our inherently biased institutional structures, both at the Huntington and beyond, cannot be solely achieved by lauding underrepresented subjects in painting. While formally being an electrically gorgeous study in historical portraiture, Wiley’s painting nonetheless critically sifts through these tangled discourses. The heft and tenor of this work rests with the artist’s ability to do so while still privileging the humanity of his subject, whether veritable or not.
Kehinde Wiley: A Portrait of a Young Gentleman runs from October 2, 2021–January 3, 2022 at the Huntington (1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, CA 91108).