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The Napoleons of Kehinde Wiley and Jacques-Louis David Meet in France

  • Left Jacques-Louis David, Le Premier Consul franchissant les Alpes au col du Grand Saint-Bernard Right Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps
October 22, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

The presence of Black artists in the 20th-century art history has become a relevant matter in the last two decades and was largely debated globally. More and more artists became acclaimed especially in the United States, although recent times show an unfortunate reemergence of racism.

The artist who reexamines the representational cannons and widely accepted social stereotypes of the American Black community is Kehinde Wiley. For more than a decade, he has been producing hyper-real portraits of men and women juxtapozed against floral wallpapers, and his career boomed after the artist produced a portrait of former President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in 2017.

Wiley’s paintings are apparently influenced by the Old Masters, and can be perceived as hybrids due to their stylistic and representational heterogeneity; for instance, the hip hop aesthetic mixed with Islamic architecture and the French Rococo.

In 2005, the artist made his interpretation of the famous portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte crossing the Alps by the French Neoclassicist master Jacques-Louis David. Now, both of these works are displayed in a dialog at The Château de Malmaison in Paris.

Kehinde Wiley at the opening ceremony
Kehinde Wiley at the opening ceremony. Photo: E. Soulat

Revisiting Jacques-Louis David

Jacques-Louis David’s iconic masterpiece was commissioned by the King of Spain in 1800 aimed to honor the young General Bonaparte who wished to be painted calm on a fiery horse. The general liked David’s vision and so he ordered four replicas, now located in Vienna, Berlin, and Versailles.

The painting was sent to Madrid in 1802; the King of Spain was dethroned eight years later and replaced by Napoleon’s own brother, Joseph. The king was exiled to the United States and took the painting by David with him. The work inspired local artists there before it was returned to Europe in 1832, where it was kept within Joseph’s lineage until his great-granddaughter gave it to The Château de Malmaison in 1949.

Jacques-Louis David - Le Premier Consul franchissant
Jacques-Louis David – Napoleon Crossing the Alps (Bonaparte franchissant le Grand Saint-Bernard), 1801. Oil on canvas, 102 1/3 x 87 in. (261 x 221 cm). Collection of Chateau de Malmaison. Photo: Courtesy RMN-GP

Kehinde Wliey’s Re-Contextualization

Since 2001, Kehinde Wiley has been challenging the grand tradition of historical portraiture by depicting African-American subjects who, like the artist himself, experience their exclusion from the canonical narratives of art history.

His version of the Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps features an unnamed African-American man wearing camouflage outfit and Timberland boots depicted instead of Napoleon Bonaparte, riding a fiery horse with the rocky mise en scene behind.

The work, held in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum, belongs to a series of equestrian portraits entitled Rumors of War, through which Wiley questions the art historical canon by fusing the traditional format and aesthetic of seventeenth and eighteenth-century portraiture with elements of contemporary black American culture.

Kehinde Wiley - Napoleon Leading The Army over the Alps
Kehinde Wiley – Napoleon Leading The Army over the Alps, 2005. Oil on canvas, 108 x 108 in. (274.3 x 274.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Partial gift of Suzi and Andrew Booke Cohen in memory of Ilene R.Booke and in honor of Arnold L. Lehman, Mary Smith, Darward Fund, and William K. Jacobs, J. Fund, 2015.5. c Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Brooklyn Museum

Wiley and David in France and The States

Kehinde Wiley meets Jacques-Louis David will be on view at Château de Malmaison in Paris until 6 January 2020. The exhibition will then travel to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York where the audience will be able to see it from 24 January until 10 May 2020.

This exhibition is jointly organized by the curators from both the French and the American institutions and will be followed with a dense program at each exhibition space, aimed to unravel the social and political importance of portraiture throughout the history, as well as the role setting has in every portrait in regards to the contemporary moment.

Featured image: Left: Kehinde Wiley – Napoleon Leading The Army over the Alps, 2005. Oil on canvas, 108 x 108 in. (274.3 x 274.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Partial gift of Suzi and Andrew Booke Cohen in memory of Ilene R. Booke and in honor of Arnold L. Lehman, Mary Smith, Darward Fund, and William K. Jacobs, J. Fund, 2015.5. c Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Brooklyn Museum / Right: Jacques-Louis David – Napoleon Crossing the Alps (Bonaparte franchissant le Grand-Saint-Bernard), 1801. Oil on canvas, 102 1/3 x 87 in. (261 x 221 cm). Collection of Chateau de Malmaison. Photo: Courtesy RMN-GP. All images courtesy Château de Malmaison and Brooklyn Museum.