Kehinde Wiley’s “Portrait of a Young Gentleman,” his eagerly anticipated reimagining of Gainsborough’s iconic 1770 painting “The Blue Boy,” went on display Saturday at The Huntington.
Wiley’s work, which takes the name that Thomas Gainsborough initially used, incorporates the Grand Manner portraiture technique and style, but in a contemporary setting.
The Huntington commissioned the piece, and it will be part of the museum’s permanent collection.
It’s not the first time Wiley, who identifies as gay, has received a prestigious request.
Wiley 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 in 2018.
In “Portrait of a Young Gentleman,” the Black model, in a similar pose as Gainsborough’s, is from Dakar, Senegal, where Wiley has a studio and painted much of the piece during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020.
The model has sandy dreadlocks and wears an orange tie dye T shirt with blue shorts and black sneakers. He holds a hat in his right hand that extends to his knee and wears a watch on his left wrist.
“It’s aesthetically and traditionally tied to a very mannered and known narrative surrounding power, dignity, and beauty,” Wiley told the Los Angeles Times. “And also the way that society wants to figure a young man coming into age, coming into manhood.”
Also, Wiley said his painting, compared to Gainsborough’s, “arrives at a completely different set of cultural leanings by virtue of the way that we look at Black people, and Black boys, by virtue of the way that we change meaning and context.
“It’s only through these lenses that we understand the true impact of young Black boys not being seen as the babies that they are, the vulnerable people that they are, being systematically reduced to a type of menace.”
Wiley’s “Portrait of a Young Gentleman” will be displayed through Jan. 3 and hang in the space formerly occupied by “The Blue Boy” at the front of the Huntington’s Thornton Portrait Gallery.
“The Blue Boy” was relocated opposite “Portrait of a Young Gentleman,” at the other end of the gallery, for the run of the exhibit.