Kehinde Wiley’s Napoleon Portrait: A New Language of Representation

Written by Kathryn Cooperman.

Edited by Tiffany Chan, Catherine Harlow, and Morgan Moore.

Contemporary black artist Kehinde Wiley (1977-  ) is turning the European canon of art on its head. He creates works based on famous historical European paintings that feature black figures from the present day. The artist empowers his subjects by bestowing them with iconography of past rulers, a visual language from which they were previously barred. As Wiley has stated, “I believe it’s possible to hold twin desires in your head, such as the desire to create painting and destroy painting at once.” Wiley has also called his work a “juxtaposition of the ‘old’ inherited by the ‘new.’” By placing black figures at the forefront of his canvases, he engineers a new language of representation, makes us reconsider the old, and creates a legacy for the next generation to inherit.

An example of Kehinde Wiley’s work that powerfully combines contemporary elements and European portraiture is Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005). This painting serves as a modern interpretation of Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801) by French Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David; the two paintings were actually unveiled side by side as part of an exhibit in the Brooklyn Museum on January 24, 2020. David’s portrait of Napoleon is a monumental painting in both size and subject matter. It was created to celebrate Napoleon’s win at the Battle of Marengo in 1800, which was an exceptionally dangerous battle and a tremendous feat for the young general, who was only 30 and had just usurped power after the French Revolution took place. Wiley’s portrait reinvents this traditional format, providing some key changes. 

Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801), the painting upon which Wiley’s portrait is based. Image per Wikimedia Commons.

Replacing the white Napoleon of yesteryear is Wiley’s Napoleon, a black man who Wiley discovered through his “streetcasting” technique. Wiley recruits his models, who are everyday people, on the streets of New York, as well as wherever he travels internationally. He then asks them to peruse art history books featuring European paintings and mimic one of the poses that they see. The streetcasting approach gives the models a sense of agency, and it critiques traditional portraiture by elevating everyday citizens instead of royal figures.

Just like David’s painting, Wiley’s is oversize, at 9’ x 9’, and also features an equestrian portrait, in which the sitter is riding a majestic horse. The equestrian portrait hearkens back to Roman leaders and generals, and European rulers, who were portrayed in this way in order to assert their prowess, masculinity, and dominance in war. Historically, this convention was exclusively used for white males, but in Wiley’s painting, a black man wearing camouflage is depicted as a powerful general. This decision challenges a legacy of white portraiture by inserting black individuals into that narrative, and defies stereotypes of how the black community has typically been portrayed. 

Kehinde Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005). Image per Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Furthermore, in both portraits, the names of famous Roman and European rulers are inscribed in the rocks at the lower left of the canvases: (Napoleon) Bonaparte, Hannibal, and Karolus Magnus (Charlemagne). However, Wiley includes in this list his model’s last name, “Williams.” Similar to the inclusion of Williams’ name, “Wiley” and the year in Roman numerals are also inscribed on the girth strap around the horse’s midsection, just as David had done. These inscriptions insert both Williams and Wiley into the canon of royalty, a legacy traditionally only shared by European kings and leaders, and the artists who painted them. 

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Detail, David’s portrait.
Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 5.43.51 PM
Detail, Wiley’s portrait.

Additionally, David’s Napoleon wears clothing typical of European generals (for example, the bicorne hat, blue and gold fabric, and riding shoes). Most notable is the gold swath of fabric that drapes around his torso and dramatically flings out to the right. The fabric frames his right arm and the horse’s head, and creates a sense of direction to emphasize that the horse and sitter are mightily charging forward. Wiley’s Napoleon is also draped in this gold fabric, which gives him a sense of power and movement, but instead of traditional European dress, he wears contemporary clothes associated with the hip-hop vernacular, namely a bandana around his head, wristbands, and Timberland shoes. He is also dressed in a camouflage outfit and he carries a sword at his left hip, which evokes the language of war, and combines both traditional and modern iconography. This choice of clothing marks this painting’s subject as a modern black man, while the portrait as a whole suggests that such a man is just as powerful as a white conqueror.

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Detail, Wiley’s portrait.

Furthermore, the background of Wiley’s portrait both mimics and critiques past modes of representation in art history. It is typical of Wiley’s style in that it is sumptuous and ornate. Gold motifs inspired by the fleur-de-lis repeat on a red background; both the symbols and colors call to mind French royalty. However, amongst the gold decorations, one can also see tiny sperm cells painted on the canvas. These are no doubt meant to symbolize virility. This portrayal is similar to that employed by the Medicis, the Italian Renaissance ruling family. On the Medici coat of arms, palle, or testicles, were depicted to represent fertility. The swimming sperm convey the masculinity of Wiley’s portrait, but at the same time, they mock this fixation on male prowess, something with which the Renaissance era was overly concerned. Overall, the inclusion of the sperm cells calls to mind royalty and the patriarchy, while at the same time calling out the preoccupation with male dominance that was so central to European portraiture. 

Through his Napoleon portrait, Kehinde Wiley subverts the white canon of art history. He hones a new artistic language to represent the black community, and empowers his subjects. In doing so, he includes himself and his models amongst the backdrop of European rulers, and creates a modern canon for future generations to behold.

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