Just weeks before his portrait of Barack Obama goes on display at LACMA, the Huntington has debuted artist Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of a Young Gentleman, his own take on Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy. That recently-restored 1770 portrait, easily the centerpiece of the museum’s collection for the past century, played in key role in Wiley’s stylistic development (the L.A. artist frequented the gallery as a kid with his mother and took classes there), and the two works are now on display across the gallery from each other.
Wiley’s bold orange and periwinkle portrait of a casually-dressed Black man beams inside of a gallery full of 18th-century fancily-outfitted Brits. Like his other interpretations of historical portraits, Wiley’s Gentleman mimics some of the key characteristics of The Blue Boy: Both feature anonymous subjects draped in luxurious blues and posing with one hand on the hip and the other holding a hat, and Wiley even commissioned a recreation of the elder painting’s ornate frame.
Whereas Gainsborough’s painting plays up fancy dress, Wiley’s features what he dubs a California surfer dude aesthetic: A Senegalese man with blond dreadlocks in an orange tie-dye shirt, electric-blue shorts and black-and-whte Vans who’s adorned with a white smartwatch and clutching an American flag cap. And that’s all woven into a periwinkle-and-pink patchwork of poppies that situates the subject within nature (as well as within a twist on Morris and Co.’s Arts and Crafts anemone textile pattern).
As you pivot back and forth between the two paintings, each viewing sparks a new line of questioning about their subjects, their status and representation in art. You’ll be able to continue that conversation through early January, when The Blue Boy will temporarily head to London’s National Gallery (that’s also when the complementary display of Arts and Crafts patterns just outside the gallery will go away). But Wiley’s Gentleman is at the museum to stay, and likely for a while in this same gallery of British portraiture.