A young black man is praying in a cathedral. His portrait is framed like an altarpiece. I saw this work by Kehinde Wiley at the Phoenix Art Museum. Turns out Wiley’s model is posing in the same stance as Flemish nobleman Maarten Nieuwenhove did in 1487 when artist Hans Memling created his portrait. Memling was a bit of a rebel in the art world, one of the first artists to create portraits of people who weren’t royals or clergy and also one of the first to put his subjects in natural settings rather than portray them against single color backgrounds. Maarten Nieuwenhove was 23 in this portrait. He served as mayor, councilor and captain of the guard in the city of Bruges. He was married to Margareta Haultin and died at age 36. In the stained glass window behind young Maarten is his namesake saint, St. Martin. Martin was so dedicated and persuasive when it came to negotiating the freeing of prisoners that kings and nobles refused to give him an audience because they knew he would request mercy for someone and they would be unable to refuse.
Kehinde Wiley might be considered a bit of a rebel in the art world too. He often places anonymous and disenfranchised young black men and women in paintings of historical importance. I wish we knew more about the young man who posed for the Kehinde portrait. I’m curious about the two insignia on his jacket and the branch decorating one side of it. I wonder about the bracelet he is wearing. Do we see this young man differently because he is posing in a pious and cultured setting than we would let’s say if we encountered him on a city street? Apparently Kehinde sometimes allows his models to choose the portrait from the past they want to pose in. Did this young man choose the Maarten Nieuwenhove portrait and if so why?
A writer named Andy Beta says portraits like this challenge the largely white male history of Western art and give Kehinde’s little known subjects a sense of power and presence. Is he right?