Renowned portrait artist Kehinde Wiley is creating a new work for The Huntington that’s inspired by Thomas Gainsborough’s masterpiece “The Blue Boy” and will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the purchase of the 1770 painting by Henry and Arabella Huntington, the founders of the institution.
In 2018, Wiley, who identifies as gay, became the first Black artist to paint an official U.S. presidential portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery when former President Barack Obama selected him.
Beyond its cultural significance, “The Blue Boy” is considered a treasure of artistic virtuosity. Gainsborough’s command of color and mastery of brushwork are on full display in the painting, made even more apparent as a result of recent conservation work by The Huntington.
The painting first appeared in public in London in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1770 as “A Portrait of a Young Gentleman,” where it received high acclaim, and by 1798, it was being called “The Blue Boy” — a nickname that stuck.
Wiley’s re-envisioning of “The Blue Boy” painting will be a large-scale portrait in the Grand Manner style, an idealized aesthetic style derived from classicism and the art of the High Renaissance that depicted England’s 18th- and 19th-century noble class.
It will be added to the permanent collection of The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
Wiley’s “A Portrait of a Young Gentleman” (also the original title of the Gainsborough painting) will be on view from Oct. 2 to Jan. 3, 2022, in The Huntington’s Thornton Portrait Gallery, opposite the iconic and recently restored “The Blue Boy.”
“Just as scholars come to The Huntington to study and reinterpret our significant collections, with this commission we are delighted that Kehinde Wiley will re-envision our iconic work, “The Blue Boy,” and Grand Manner portraiture in a powerful way,” Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence said in a press statement Thursday that announced the Wiley commission. “Across the breadth of our library, art, and botanical collections, we are inviting perspectives that alter the way we see tradition itself.”
Wiley has long talked about the role The Huntington played in his formative years as an artist growing up in Los Angeles. When he was young, his mother enrolled him in art classes at The Huntington, where he encountered a formidable collection of Grand Manner portraits — large-scale depictions of England’s 18th- and 19th-century noble class. The portraits made such an impression on Wiley that he would later incorporate their stylistic representations of wealth, glory, and power into his own artistic practice, focusing on the Black and brown bodies missing from the museums he visited.
“I loved The Huntington’s galleries; the paintings by Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and John Constable were some of my favorites,” Wiley said in the statement. “I was taken by their imagery, their sheer spectacle, and, of course, their beauty.
“When I started painting, I started looking at their technical proficiency — the manipulation of paint, color, and composition,” he said. “These portraits are hyperreal, with the detail on the face finely crafted, and the brushwork, the clothing, and the landscape fluid and playful.
“Since I felt somewhat removed from the imagery — personally and culturally — I took a scientific approach and had an aesthetic fascination with these paintings. That distance gave me a removed freedom,” Wiley said. “Later, I started thinking about issues of desire, objectification, and fantasy in portraiture and, of course, colonialism.”
For “A Portrait of a Young Gentleman,” Wiley has been painting in Senegal, where he has been living during the COVID-19 pandemic and where Black Rock Senegal, his artist-in-residence program, is headquartered.
Wiley, who earned a bachelor’s in fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and a master’s in fine arts from Yale University in 2001, became famous for full-length depictions of everyday Black men and women in street clothes.
The subjects are painted in classical poses against vibrant, patterned backgrounds, reminiscent of West African fabrics as well as wallpaper and textile designs by William Morris and Co. Wiley’s portraits have come to include depictions of a number of public figures, the most well known of them is the presidential portrait of Obama, which coincidentally will be on view just a few miles from The Huntington at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this fall, as part of a national tour.