After a brief sojourn in France, one of Kehinde Wiley’s most famous portraits is coming back to New York City.
The 2005 piece, titled “Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps,” is returning to its home at the Brooklyn Museum, along with the 19th-century Jacques-Louis David work on which it is based. The exhibition of the two portraits, running Jan. 24 to May 10, marks the first time the pieces have ever been shown together in the U.S.
“By displaying the two paintings together, in dialogue with each other for the very first time, the exhibition explores how ideas of race, masculinity, representation, power and agency have played out across the history of Western portraiture,” the museum said in a statement.
Wiley has also collaborated with the institution for an upcoming video piece for the show. The goal of the new spot, according to curators, is to reveal how the history of colonialism influences Wiley’s artistic philosophy.
Lisa Small, the museum’s senior curator of European art, said the Wiley painting would be moved from its permanent placement in the museum lobby to a special exhibition gallery for the occasion.
“We knew that we wanted the two monumental paintings to command their own, dedicated space,” Small told ALL ARTS. “We are presenting the pair in one of our special exhibition galleries, which not only signals the importance of this presentation, but gives our visitors plenty of room to contemplate them as individual works as well as in dialogue with each other.”
What’s more, the presentation marks the first time David’s portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte will be shown in New York. Painted in 1801, the neoclassical work features the French emperor on horseback, his confident figure a point of stability against a frigid mountain landscape. The painting, commissioned by King Charles IV of Spain to curry favor with Bonaparte, is widely regarded as a piece of propaganda. David, who would later be Bonaparte’s official painter, took enormous creative license in his depiction.
Wiley’s remix, meanwhile, supplants an idealized Bonaparte for an anonymous Black man donning Timberlands and camouflage. The artist further traded David’s frigid mountainside with an opulent tapestry of red and gold.
“Seeing everyday citizens represented the way rulers and aristocrats have been depicted for centuries in traditional European visual culture—as figures of power and status—is a remarkably powerful experience for all audiences,” Small said. “In addition to borrowing the composition and pose of David’s portrait of Napoleon, Wiley includes jewel-like gold sperm scattered across the painting’s surface and custom-made frame, which is crowned by a self-portrait of the artist emerging from the womb. I am equally drawn to the seductive visual splendor of the paintings – the bold colors, riotous patterns, and dramatic poses and gestures.
The portrait belongs to Wiley’s ongoing “Rumors of War” series and is one of several equestrian pieces he’s completed. In October, Wiley, who surged in popularity after painting President Barack Obama’s portrait in 2018, debuted a monumental piece in Times Square that featured another anonymous Black man atop a rearing steed. In that case, the sculpture was a direct response to remaining confederate statues.
Find out more information about the exhibition by heading over to the Brooklyn Museum website.