I’m standing in the Huntington Library in Pasadena, to which we were bused as suburban schoolchildren to stare in confused awe (how could adults be interested in such boring pictures?) at Portrait of a Young Gentleman (known as “The Blue Boy”) by Thomas Gainsborough (1770) and Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton: Pinkie by Thomas Lawrence (1794). As a child an old oil portrait of some dandyish young guy (though much older than we at the time) from two hundred years prior had no appeal. When was lunch? When was the trip to the Twinkie factory? (yes, we LA County kids were provided field trips to the Hostess headquarters as well as the Huntington).
The Huntington has glorious gardens, huge buildings with some huge art, much of it remaining hugely dull to this viewer, past and present. Yet now, the long rectangular gallery in which Blue Boy hangs with inferior paintings of similar subject, all painted in the full length “grand style,” has a much fresher occupant. Where once was Pinkie, staring across the stately expanse of the Thornton Portrait Gallery at Blue Boy in a kind of arranged yet distant marriage, now we see a work by Kehinde Wiley, A Portrait of a Young Gentleman, from 2021. The new work, commissioned by the Huntington to celebrate 100 years since Henry and Arabella Huntington purchased Blue Boy, is a cheeky response to the old one, with the full-length subject striking the same pose, yet with the background a heavily patterned and rather whimsical blue and orange explosion, reversing the somber dark background/blue subject balance of the prior painting while amping up the color saturation. The original Blue Boy is actually quite white, as are all the other subjects of the room’s paintings, while the new fellow is quite Black. The brashness with which both Wiley’s subject and the (recently restored) Blue Boy regard the world seems fresh and alive in contrast to the strained elegance the other paintings attempt. Pinkie? She’s pouting in an adjoining hallway, a distinct step down in status and a reminder how curation and positioning prompt a narrative interpretation of visual images. Blue Boy is flanked by a much inferior Gainsborough, Elizabeth Beaufoy, and a Joshua Reynolds, Diana Viscontess Crosbie. The Wiley is unaccompanied, situated between the two doorways leading into the room and worthy of such stand-alone status. And then there is the framing of the two fellows; we expect elaborate and overworked frames for the older paintings but the Wiley gets similar treatment, though that frame is dark and a bit less attention grabbing, while the original goes for the garish gold. The anachronism, in this environment, playfully mines the grandiosity of the grand style .
In the preceding room there is a temporary exhibition, The Beautyful Ones, curated by New Yorker writer and winner of a 2017 Pulitzer Prize, Hilton Als, and co-sponsored by the Yale Center for British Art, of five large collaged paintings created with acrylic, colored pencil, charcoal and photo transfers on paper by the Nigerian born and reared artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby (b. 1983). Crosby has studied and shown in the U.K. and U.S. as an adult, and awarded a MacArthur fellowship in 2017. Her assemblages feature the full length figures of children, accompanied by very flat renditions of consumer products (sound systems, TV’s) against busy collages evoking the African 1980’s of the artist’s youth. Although portrayed in full length, the approach seems less about grandness, being more poignant, unsure, a bit uncomfortable, perhaps due to the subjects being children (again a narrative assumption). Each piece features heavily patterned backgrounds collaged from advertisements, magazine covers, fashion photos, historical figures and political demonstrations. Als’ statement tells us that these paintings are inspired by the Ghanian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah’s 1968 novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Unlike the portraits across from them and in the adjoining room, these young Nigerians are framed by what might be interpreted as aspirations more than possessions, though that in both cases is a supposition. Did Blue Boy actually own all the bling he was portrayed in? The wall text tells us that Gainsborough was influenced by the Flemish Anthony van Dyke’s prior costuming choices, which led to this painting’s particular attention from Londoners.
On the far wall in the same room as the Crosby works hangs a very small oil, Portrait of a Young Black Man. This radiant painting, almost a sketch with only the face fully painted, is undated circa 1800 and by an anonymous British artist. The intense focus on the subject’s face pulls attention through the very direct manner in which he looks out at us, the dramatic red scarf ennobling his loosely rendered jacket. This portrait is believed to have been painted when slavery was still legal in England, though nothing about the man’s dress or pose implies enslavement. Beautiful ones were born then but only some could see that beauty. At first glance, it appears that these works presenting Black bodies and lives face, in this small room, the usual white denizens of the Huntington, evidenced by a painting of an imperious woman quite regally dressed; I thought she might be Elizabeth I. Yet it is titled Portrait of an Unknown Woman (1615), attributed to Robert Peake the Elder. She may be “unknown,” but she is clearly somebody, accessorized as she is with jewelry and portrayed in the “grand manner” so that we may see it all. There is another such painting in the room as well, this one Anne Kirke (Anthony van Dyck 1637), a Dresser to Queen Henrietta Maria. Both these grand portraits dwarf, in size, the much smaller painting of the young Black man on the opposite wall. Perhaps that is yet again what makes Wiley’s massive portrait in the other room so assertive, portraying a Black subject full-body, as do the Crosby works. In representation, scale and framing are not purely visual issues.
As a young white child in a suburb of Los Angeles in the 1960’s, with no Black friends or teachers, a room full of whiteness did not surprise me. That limitation did, unconsciously, bore and somewhat disorient me. What in all these portraits proposed a compelling story, or anything aspirational? What of this past grandness should be of interest to me? Many years later, having moved to New York City, I worked for too long in mediocre restaurants. In my first such job, a very young Hilton Als was the only Black employee. Now a prominent writer, he is in a position to curate and promote from a perspective rather different than mine. He is also looked to, as are many BIPOC artists and curators, for discovering/uncovering/rediscovering histories that confront skewed perspectives and facile harmonies. Reading the wall text for one of Crosby’s works, we are told that amongst those newspaper articles serving as the patterned background, is a headline about the 2014 kidnapping by Boko Haram terrorists of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria. On my initial viewing, I did not see, did not recognize that detail, seeing only a visual pattern.
Here I am now, a white man in his sixties, again in this institution, the Huntington, itself part of much larger web of institutions that have been temples to whiteness and to imperial levels of wealth and access. Since leaving my childhood home I have been educated to look not only at the object on the wall, plinth, screen or page, but also to question how it got there, who selected it, who owns and/or stole it and to ask the circumstances of that possession. The distant Blue Boy of my earlier and limited art education must now stare across the wide room of aristocratic portraiture at his contemporary equal, both of them cocky young men, decked out in finery whose value is not necessarily determined by price so much as swagger. They are both so very similar in their assurance and accessorized self-presentation. Both remain equally far away from me. Yet perhaps not; I have recently been sifting through photographs of my younger self and noticed dramatic shifts in my own confidence as I face the camera (only one oil painting from very early childhood). Contemporary portraiture is contaminated by overexposure; we all know (or think we do) how to pose for a camera. Perhaps that is as it should be; why should a knowing self-presentation be limited to the sophisticated, wealthy (and historically white)? The light lands, the colors pop, the stance widens. Oil portraits have been thought to reveal more, simply because they take more time and, as was the case with early photography, the poser eventually sinks into something a bit more revealing. Or not; we remember that most historical portraiture put the subject quite literally in the best possible light; “controlling the narrative,” as we like to say now.
Wiley, the Huntington’s press materials explain, also grew up on the LA area. Unlike myself, he confesses to being inspired by his youthful viewing of Blue Boy and other portraits done in the grand style. Yet,
“Since I felt somewhat removed from the imagery—personally and culturally—I took a scientific approach and had an aesthetic fascination with these paintings. That distance gave me a removed freedom. Later, I started thinking about issues of desire, objectification, and fantasy in portraiture and, of course, colonialism.”
Gazing at each other and at us, these works by artists who are also looking at each other, the “beautiful/beautyful,” pull us into a much wider gaze spanning their lifetimes and our own. Wiley’s look at Gainsborough, one Blue Boy looking at another, makes me look again at both of them and see the distance between both expanding and collapsing, a vortex fueled by the “anonymous/unknown” from the next room, and the U.S/U.K./Nigerian/Ghanian bodies and faces selected by someone I knew in the large interval between my own youth and maturity. I am tripped backwards to the naïve child gaping in bored perplexity at a painting he could not understand and now can only understand in the context of other paintings, other people, other lives.