Working in Senegal, the renowned artist is reconceiving The Huntington’s iconic 1770 Gainsborough painting in a contemporary context.
Exhibition on view Oct. 2, 2021–Jan. 3, 2022 | Huntington Art Gallery
SAN MARINO, Calif.—The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens announced today that it has commissioned the renowned artist Kehinde Wiley to create a new work inspired by Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy (ca. 1770). Wiley’s A Portrait of a Young Gentleman (also the original title of the Gainsborough painting) will be a large-scale portrait in the Grand Manner style that will be added to The Huntington’s permanent collection. The new painting will be on view from Oct. 2, 2021, through Jan. 3, 2022, in The Huntington’s Thornton Portrait Gallery, opposite the institution’s iconic and recently restored Blue Boy. The acquisition of the Wiley portrait celebrates the 100th anniversary of the purchase of the Gainsborough painting by Henry and Arabella Huntington, the founders of the institution.
“Just as scholars come to The Huntington to study and reinterpret our significant collections, with this commission we are delighted that Kehinde Wiley will reenvision our iconic work, The Blue Boy, and Grand Manner portraiture in a powerful way,” said Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence. “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. “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. 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. 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 which is the presidential portrait of Barack Obama, which coincidentally will be on view just a few miles from The Huntington at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) this fall, as part of a national tour.
“By adding a work by Kehinde Wiley to our collection, and offering it on view in our most lauded gallery of historic art, we are examining our shared history and beginning to curate our future,” said Christina Nielsen, Hannah and Russel Kully Director of the Art Museum at The Huntington. “I fully expect that Wiley’s portrait will speak to 21st-century audiences just as Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy did to its original audience when it was first unveiled in 1770. We can’t wait to share this experience with visitors.”
In conjunction with the commission, The Huntington is developing plans for a related book.
In January 2022, The Blue Boy will travel to London for an exhibition at the National Gallery, opening 100 years to the day it departed from England for its new home in California.
This commission and its presentation are made possible by an Anonymous Foundation, Anne F. Rothenberg, Terry Perucca and Annette Serrurier, the Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation, and the WHH Foundation. Additional support is provided by Laura and Carlton Seaver, Kent Belden and Dr. Louis Re, and Faye and Robert Davidson.
About Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977, Los Angeles) is an American artist best known for his portraits that render people of color in the traditional settings of Old Master paintings. Wiley’s work brings art history face-to-face with contemporary culture, using the visual rhetoric of the heroic, the powerful, the majestic, and the sublime to celebrate the Black and brown people he has met throughout the world. Working in the mediums of painting, sculpture, and video, Wiley challenges and reorients art-historical narratives, awakening complex issues that many would prefer to remain muted.
In 2018, Wiley became the first African American artist to paint an official U.S. presidential portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Former U.S. President Barack Obama selected Wiley for this honor. In 2019, Wiley founded Black Rock Senegal, a multidisciplinary artist-in-residence program that invites artists from around the world to live and create work in Dakar, Senegal. Wiley is the recipient of the U.S. Department of State’s Medal of Arts, Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Medal, and France’s distinction of Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters. He holds a B.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute, an M.F.A. from Yale University, and an honorary doctorate from the Rhode Island School of Design. He has held solo exhibitions throughout the United States and internationally, and his works are included in the collections of more than 50 public institutions around the world. He lives and works in Beijing, Dakar, and New York.
About The Blue Boy
Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) was among the most prominent artists of his day. Though he preferred to paint landscapes, he made his career producing stylish portraits of the British gentry and aristocracy. Jonathan Buttall (1752–1805), the first owner of The Blue Boy, was once thought to have been the portrait’s sitter, but recent research has disproven this identification. The identity of the subject remains unconfirmed, though it has been suggested that the boy’s features are those of Gainsborough’s nephew and studio assistant, Gainsborough Dupont (1754–1797). The figure’s costume is significant. Instead of dressing his model in the elegant finery worn by most sitters at the time, or in the kind of quasi-classical robes often employed by his rival Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough chose knee breeches and a slashed doublet with a lace collar—a nod to the work of Anthony van Dyck, the 17th-century Flemish painter who had profoundly influenced British art.
The painting first appeared in public 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.
Henry E. (1850–1927) and Arabella (1851–1924) Huntington purchased The Blue Boy from the Duke of Westminster in 1921. It was included in a number of exhibitions in the 19th century and was reproduced many times for commercial purposes. By the time the Huntingtons bought it, it was one of the most famous artworks in England. During its journey from London to Los Angeles, The Blue Boy caused a sensation in the United States, as it was the focus of a series of limited-engagement exhibitions engineered by art dealer Joseph Duveen.
Fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, writing in 2017 in The Atlantic, says contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley isn’t the only creative who’s been inspired by The Blue Boy. “The Pop Art pioneer Robert Rauschenberg credited The Blue Boy with inspiring him to become a painter after he visited The Huntington on shore leave from the Navy during World War II. More recently, the LA artist Alex Israel evoked it in his 2014 self-portrait in a blue satin Dodgers jacket. Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to a now-lost silent movie about the painting—F. W. Murnau’s 1919 Der Knabe in Blau—by putting Jamie Foxx in a frilly blue suit in Django Unchained.”
Beyond its cultural significance, the painting is considered a masterpiece 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.
About The Huntington
The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, a collections-based research and educational institution, aspires to be a welcoming place of engagement and reflection for a diverse community. The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, California, 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Visitor information: huntington.org or 626-405-2100. (Check huntington.org for updates on visitation protocols due to COVID-19.)