Growing up in Los Angeles, the artist Kehinde Wiley was inspired by the beauty, wealth, glory and power of the Grand Manner portraits of men in regal poses at the Huntington in San Marino, Calif., though he was struck by one frustrating omission: Where were the subjects of color?
He’ll now get the chance to add one of his own.
The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens announced on Thursday that it had commissioned Wiley, who is best known for his portrait of President Barack Obama, to create a large-scale portrait in response to a crown jewel of its collection: Thomas Gainsborough’s 18th-century masterpiece “The Blue Boy.” Wiley’s piece will be unveiled on Oct. 2 in the museum’s Thornton Portrait Gallery, where it will hang opposite the famous Gainsborough.
The commission, which will be added to the Huntington’s permanent collection, is part of the institution’s effort to expand its contemporary art programming and present more artists of color, said Christina Nielsen, the director of the Huntington Art Museum, which sits just outside Los Angeles.
“The first time I saw it, I felt an unbelievable sense of profound joy, even euphoria,” Nielsen said in a phone conversation last week. “It’s an emotional, visceral reaction — and surely that’s the way so many audiences across the centuries felt when they looked at ‘The Blue Boy.’”
Wiley, 44, is best known for his portraits that render people of color in the traditional settings of old master paintings. He created the new work, titled “A Portrait of a Young Gentleman” (also the original title of the Gainsborough painting), in Senegal, where he has been living during the pandemic and where Black Rock Senegal, his artist-in-residence program, is headquartered.
The new painting will be on view through Jan. 3, 2022, the same month that the Gainsborough will travel to London’s National Gallery for an exhibition. Wiley’s Obama portrait will also be on view a few miles away at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art beginning Nov. 7 as part of a national tour.