Kehinde Wiley – Princess Essay
Conceived as part of his 2012 series, Economy of Grace, Kehinde Wiley’s Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, The Two Sisters, and Judith and Holofernes each redefine African American stereotypes in their own way, recreating famous paintings to demonstrate the prestige, power, and identity of women of color in America. Taken together, these artworks show a progression within black female culture, which begins with recognizing the African American woman’s self-confidence in Princess, followed by her unity among a black female cohort in Two Sisters, and finally leading to her empowerment in Judith.
Throughout history, people of color have long suffered from the indignities of slavery, poverty, and social injustice. In his paintings, Wiley transforms the negative impact of these indignities into positive perspectives. Being an African American gay man makes him even more vulnerable to a society that would much rather him conform to social norms. Instead he embraces his individuality, choosing to be himself rather than what others would have him be. Wiley demonstrates this nonconformity throughout his work (Tsai). He uses models with tattoos, personal jewelry, and modern clothes to make his images relatable to modern viewers. He wants people to be able to see their own reflections in his paintings, using the models to represent contemporary African American culture. People of color have long been excluded from art, but Wiley chooses to reinvigorate the old archetypes by making them more inclusive.
In this way, Wiley encourages people to analyze art in a new fashion as we can see in the first painting in this series. Originally painted by Sir Edwin Landseer of England, Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was thought to be a sketch gifted to Queen Victoria from her cousin (Crisalli). Her pigtailed hair depicts her as a young child instead of a grown woman. She looks out into the garden along with the dog seeming to be fascinated with the beauty it beholds, almost like a child who is easily distracted. Unlike the 1839 painting, Wiley’s Princess portrays a radiating woman of color in place of Landseer’s portrait. She’s dressed in a dark blue gown that symbolizes her intelligence, wisdom, and confidence. The lighting adds soft touches around her shoulders showing a relaxed individual. Positioned toward the flowery background, with her back turned to the viewer, she is turning away from a past full of discrimination to an all-inclusive future where she comes to accept herself. The flowers are not just budding in nature, but symbolize her blooming understanding of her own identity: an identity that doesn’t just fit the European standards of beauty, but also her own.
When a woman is able to accept herself with her flaws and strengths, she is now able to stand with other women in unity as we see in the second painting of
the series: The Two Sisters shows the next step in the progression of a black woman’s identity. In Chassériau’s 1843 painting of Sisters, a bond between two women who share the same dress, jewelry, and hairstyle is depicted (Lanno). These women, though painted as two different entities, are the mirror image of each other – they don’t have their own identity and seem to thrive off of one another. Their joined arms voice their fear of letting go, because if they do they would never survive alone. Wiley reimagines this piece with two African American women standing side by side in white, a pure color that shows their innocence and grace. One individual wraps her arms around the other creating a strong link between the two, demonstrating their support for one another, each person being the root that keeps the other grounded. The women are embracing their own uniqueness through their bright eyeshadow, lipstick, and clothing, each one having their own accessories containing modern rings, earrings, and even one with a nose piercing. Though they may be dressed in silks and linens of the past, Wiley maintains his constant theme combining present-day hip-hop culture with European traditional art. When women have accomplished these first two steps, they can now stand together to overcome stereotypes, growing together in knowledge and strength.
Last in the Economy of Graces in a black woman’s journey to self-understanding is empowerment. In Judith, the portrait pays homage to the iconic biblical figures Judith and Holofernes, who have been the frequent subject of religious paintings in European art. After being raped by Holofernes, an invading General, Judith lures him into a trap and decapitates him. Most European paintings portray Judith as a white woman with a sinister smile, along with devious amounts of beauty. She is often seen with an evil glint in her eye staring directly at her audience while she holds the head of the man she killed. However, unlike previous paintings, Wiley adds remarkable differences. He turns a gruesome scene into one of calm and peace. Judith, who was commonly painted as fearful or terrifying, is seen as courageous and powerful. Her facial expression shows a strong woman who is casually gripping the head of a white woman (“Kehinde Wiley”). By representing Holofernes as a white woman, Wiley reimagines Judith as an avenger for all women of color who have been historically excluded by the western European art tradition in favor of white womanhood. Placed in a contemporary context, the avenging message of the painting shows Judith sketching out society’s prejudices and negative stereotypes that hold her in bondage, instead positioning herself in a place of dignity and grace holding these afflictions in her hands.
Even though Princess, The Two Sisters, and Judith encourages self-confidence, unity, and strength in African American women, Wiley has been met with numerous criticisms. Being a known artist for painting male figures, this particular series shows Wiley stepping out of his comfort zone. When commented by critics on his previous work, many believed that his paintings were overly sexualized. They came to understand that his decision to only use male models for his work somehow tied into him being a gay man (Steinhauer). Even with the Economy of Grace, commentators have interpreted Wiley’s art as pieces to objectify black women. The models’ clothing, bright makeup, and skin reveal a stark contrast between the original works and his own.
Critics are correct in one area of their argument: the black women in these portraits hold immense amounts of beauty, but it’s not just the surface of the paintings that should be taken into account, but the proclamation they are making. The intelligence that emanates from Princess, the love and caring spirit that thrives in Two Sisters, the power that beholds in Judith is a political statement. Kehinde Wiley’s work is revolutionizing the idealization of black women. He is depicting the true identity of women of color that reposes the common representations that are portrayed. These women are intelligent, confident, unified, and powerful. His work causes people to not only rethink art history, but present day societal beliefs. African American women are an influential group that should not be excluded. Instead these women deserve to be magnified, their grace, beauty, and strength should be admired and cherished by all.
Crisalli, Joseph. “Sir Edwin Landseer’s “Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha,” 1839.” Stalking the Belle Époque: Masterpiece of the Week: Sir Edwin Landseer’s “Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha,” 1839. Stalking the Belle Époque, 2015. Web. 15 July 2016.
Lanno, Laurie. “Théodore Chassériau and The Two Sisters.” One Year One Painting a Day. Blogger, 20 Sept. 2012. Web. 17 July 2016. <http://oneyearonepaintingaday.blogspot.com/2012/09/theodore-chasseriau-and-two-sisters.html>.
Steinhauer, Jillian. “What to Make of the Village Voice & Offensive Kehinde Wiley Review?” Hyperallergic. Hyperallergic Media, Inc., 13 Mar. 2015. Web. 17 July 2016. <http://hyperallergic.com/190474/what-to-make-of-the-village-voices-offensive-kehinde-wiley-review/>.
Tsai, Eugenie, Connie H. Choi, and Kehinde Wiley. Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
“Kehinde Wiley: “Judith and Holofernes”” The Bold Bagel. N.p., 16 Apr. 2015. Web. 17 July 2016. <http://theboldbagel.blogspot.com/2015/04/kehinde-wiley-judith-and-holofernes_16.html>.