Finding Napoleon with Barak Obama

 

Of course that’s not Barak Obama on Napoleon’s horse in the artist Kehinde Wiley’s imitation of Jacques-Louis David’s Bonaparte Crossing the Alps. An anonymous black man has taken General Bonaparte’s place. So why bring up Barak Obama? Well, our (deeply missed) ex-president has chosen Wiley to paint his official portrait for the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery.

Kehinde Wiley, an American artist born in 1977 who grew up in Los Angeles, has a unique way of inserting Black men into classical historical paintings, imbuing them with the power and glory usually reserved for white Western rulers. In his own words, quoted from the Brooklyn Museum’s website, “Painting is about the world that we live in. Black men live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.” To me, it’s a stunning reminder to broaden my perspective of history and culture.

I’m really curious to see the setting in which Wiley portrays President Obama, who was for eight years “the most powerful man in the world.” Napoleon Bonaparte, a master propagandist, had David paint him in an idealistic pose with the names of the classical heroes Hannibal and Charlemagne carved in the rocks at his feet. To stay in power, Napoleon needed to reinforce his image as the all-conquering hero. President Obama, however, has relinquished his power in our orderly American tradition. Perhaps his portrait, which is to be revealed in 2018, will indicate his future ambitions. I wonder what advice Napoleon would have given him.

Kehinde Wiley’s painting of Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps hangs in the Brooklyn Museum. Here below for your reference is one of the five paintings Jacques-Louis David made for Napoleon of Bonaparte Crosssing the Alps.

 

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Copyright © 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 Margaret Rodenberg