ST. LOUIS, Feb. 20, 2019—The Saint Louis Art Museum recently purchased “Charles I,” a large-scale painting by Kehinde Wiley and one of the standout works from the recent exhibition of Wiley’s paintings at the museum.
This painting is one of two works in the exhibition “Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis” that Wiley based on a 1633 portrait of the English king by Daniel Martensz Mytens the Elder. The exhibition featured 11 paintings that were based on eight works from the Museum’s collection and one print from a local collection.
Wiley creates large-scale oil paintings of contemporary African-American subjects that address the politics of race and power in art. Recalling the grand traditions of European and American portraiture, he depicts his models in poses adapted from historic paintings. Last year, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery unveiled Wiley’s official portrait of former President Barack Obama.
To prepare for the exhibition, Wiley studied the museum’s collection to identify works he would reference in the exhibition. During a 2017 visit to St. Louis, he invited people he encountered in neighborhoods in north St. Louis and Ferguson to pose for the paintings. The style, scale and grandeur of those paintings is epitomized by Wiley’s “Charles I.” The artist switched the gender of the sitter from male to female to depict Ashley Cooper, a St. Louisan whose sister, Shontay Haynes, is depicted in Wiley’s “Portrait of a Florentine Nobleman” from the same exhibition. In the Wiley painting, Cooper stands tall with her wrist against her hip, looking down at the viewer in a pose identical to that of Charles I in the original Dutch painting.
The free exhibition closed Feb. 10 after a four-month run that included several sold-out programs, including an auditorium lecture by Wiley and a panel discussion with museum curators and sitters from the portraits. In addition, the museum provided more than 100 free guided tours of the exhibition to school, youth and community groups.
The exhibition enjoyed broad critical and public acclaim, said Brent R. Benjamin, the Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum.
“Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis was tied closely to our collection and to our city, and it encouraged each of us to examine artistic traditions, current events, and the power of art to unite our community,” Benjamin said. “I’m pleased that generations of St. Louisans will be able to enjoy this vibrant painting.”
Benjamin said the acquisition was an institutional priority, which is reflected in the substantial financial support for the purchase from the museum’s leadership, including members of the museum’s Board of Commissioners, Board of Trustees and Collections Committee.
Simon Kelly, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, said Wiley’s “Charles I” is an important addition to the contemporary collection.
“Kehinde Wiley plays a critical role in the contemporary renaissance of portrait painting as a genre,” Kelly said. “By referencing historical depictions of the powerful and giving his modern sitters the same authority, Wiley creates portraits that are richly complex and visually stunning.”
The painting is not currently on view. In the summer, it will be installed in the contemporary galleries, where it will complement other figurative works by African-American artists, including Nick Cave, Kerry James Marshall and Faith Ringgold, said Hannah Klemm, the museum’s assistant curator for modern and contemporary art.
“Wiley’s paintings welcome African Americans, Africans and people of the African diaspora into the space of the canvas and assert their right to occupy that space,” Klemm said. “For the Saint Louis Art Museum, ‘Charles I’ goes further—the painting not only expands who is represented in portraiture, it literally brings the local community into the collection.”
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