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Kehinde Wiley 

Celebrating the Black History Month I present you contemporary African American portrait artist Kehinde Wiley

Born from a Nigerian father and African American mother, Wiley was raised in Los Angeles. He now resides in New York.

Wiley is specialised in natural and realistic portrait of African – American. What is intriguing about his works is that he paints his models in paintings inspired by works of Old Masters.

This is one of his most famous work, Napoleon leading the army over the Alps, 2005

Kehinde Wiley Napoleon

This painting is inspired by this one; Napoleon crossing the Alps by Jean-Louis David 1801.

Firstly Wiley painted portraits using young male African-Americans as model. He approached them on the street and painted them in their own clothes, the clothes they were comfortable in. 

By doing this Wiley framed black street culture in defty white art history. He said once in an interview that he wanted to give the brothers the grandeur and power as depicted in the old portraits by the Masters. 

Later on he has started to paint women as well. And not only ordinary people on the street, this contemporary artist has painted musicians, athletes and other models.

This is Equastrian portrait of King Phillip II (Michael Jackson) 2009. This portrait has been sold for USD 175.000 during an auction in December 2009.

And this is the inspiration;  Portrait of Phillip II of Spain by Dutch master Peter Paul Rubens 1628, collection of Museo de Prado, Madrid

This is rapper LL Cool J from the Hip Hop Honor serie 2005

The inspiration, the portrait of philantropist John D. Rockefeller by John Singer Sargent 1917.

This is one of my Wiley favourites. The Two Sisters, 2012.

This is the inspiration, Two Sisters by French artist Théodore Chassériau, 1843.

During the making of female portraits like among other The Two Sisters, Wiley was followed by a camera crew. The documentary is called Kehinde Wiley: An economy of grace. I have watched this and find his approach utterly interesting. 

The models are scouted on the street. Wiley chooses the inspiration in The Louvre, Paris, from where he collaborates with Givenchy to make haute-couture gowns for the models. He then takes pictures of the models posing according the inspiration. After that he starts painting. The portraits are huge. If your are interested in this documentary, watch it. Or google Kehinde Wiley: an economy of grace. You’d see other paintings from the series, they are amazing!

Wiley’s portraits are inspired by the Old Masters. This doesn’t mean he copies the old masters, instead he gets inspired by them. So you see, like in Two Sisters, in his work the models are depicted fully while Chassériau’s work the models are shown only up to their thigh length. A couple of paintings are with male models in them while the inspirations are paintings of females.

What I love the most are the vivid colours and the background, it is wall-paper like. Therefore it makes the portraits less somber than the inspirations. That is his signature style. 

What do you think of Wiley’s works?


  • All of Kehindy Wiley paintings in this post are courtesy of Kehinde Wiley
  • Old Master paintings are courtesy of Wikicommons under Public Domain restrictions.

4 thoughts on “Kehinde Wiley 

  1. I love it Mba Yo. Although I think I am rather biased since I think art history is too white to begin with, so anything non-white I almost always see as refreshing. 😀

    • Art history is white and male oriented Aya, so you are not biased. Anything other than these two are either exotic, exceptional or tribal 🙂

  2. I didn´t know Kehinde Wiley. He is a master in his own discipline. Great realistic paintings… I liked when you mentioned how Wiley framed black street culture in defty white art history, juxtaposing in some way both cultures and ways of Life…. Truly interesting. Great post dear Lorraine… sending all my best wishes! 😀

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