Jacques-Louis David Meets Kehinde Wiley Jacques-Louis David Meets Kehinde Wiley places two iconic paintings in dialogue: Kehinde Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) and its early nineteenth-century source image, Jacques-Louis David’s Bonaparte Crossing the Alps (1800–1). Seen together for the first time, these two heroicized images provide an opportunity to explore how constructions of power, representation, race, masculinity, and agency are enacted within the realm of portraiture.
David’s equestrian portrait of the First Consul of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, has become a famous symbol of military glorification and the cult of personality. First commissioned by King Charles IV of Spain in ingrate himself with the influential French general, the composition proved such an effective mode of propaganda that Napoleon asked David to produce a replica of it. The original, on view here, was donated to the Château de Malmaison, the former home of Napoleon and Joséphine Bonaparte located just outside of Paris.
Bonaparte Crossing the Alps has inspired numerous copies, but none that resonate in contemporary culture as much as Wiley’s large-scale interpretation. Since 2001, Wiley has deliberately transformed and challenged the grand tradition of European historical portraiture, as exemplified by David's painting, which conveyed or constructed the social status and power of the sitter. His paintings foreground Black subjects who, like the artist, confront their exclusion form the canonical narratives of art history and from the writing of history as a whole. Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps retains many features of David's composition, but, most significantly, the figure of Napoleon is replaced by a contemporary Black citizen wearing camouflage fatigues and Timberland boots, literally and figuratively redressing history.
Although they were made two centuries apart, both paintings highlight the long-standing connection of image-making to power, serving as a reminder, in this twenty-first-century age of social media and celebrity, of the significant relationship between visual culture, dominance, and history. Considered together, the paintings show that the desire and the need to construct images of power cut across centuries and cultures. At the same time, they challenge a monolithic view of history by shedding light on the inequities from which power is built and the intersection of global, local, and contemporary politics.
Jacques-Louis David Meets Kehinde Wiley is organized by the Brooklyn Museum and the Musée national des chateaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau. The presentation at the Château de Malmaison was organized under the leadership of Amaury Lefébure, Director, and curated by Emmanuel Delbouis and Élodie Vaysse. The Brooklyn Museum presentation is curated by Lisa Small, Senior Curator, European Art, and Eugenie Tsai, John and Barbara Vogelstein Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum. Special thanks to Joseph Shaikewitz, Curatorial Assistant, Arts of the Americas and Europe.
I am the revolution.
Napoleon Bonaparte's (1769–1821) military prowess, political acumen, relentless ambition, and gift for self promotion reshaped Europe in the early nineteenth century and helped define the modern era. He was born on the Mediterranean island of Corsica the same year France conquered the Italian-speaking republic. Because he belonged to minor Corsican nobility, the new government granted them status as French nobles. This rank, along with the Bonaparte family's modest means, qualified Napoleon for a free education from the French state. At the age of 10, he left Corsica to attend military school in norther France.
Napoleon's military and political fortunes coincided with and were made possible by the most turbulent period in French history. In the 1770s and 1780s, France was in crisis: strangled by government and economic dysfunction, food shortages, unequal taxation, and disastrously expensive wars. At the same time, new ideas about natural rights and legislative participation based on civic equality rather than aristocratic privilege were taking hold. By 1789, these circumstances ignited the French Revolution, a profound political and cultural rupture, which challenged and then abolished the monarchy that had ruled France for centuries.
With the revolution came a series of wars between France and other European countries intent on overrunning the young, radical French Republic. Napoleon rose through the ranks of the Revolutionary Army and became a full general at age 24. Each victory, treaty, and annexation brought him acclaim that he exploited to burnish his heroic image, even spinning his failed mission to colonize Egypt as a brilliant success. When different government factions and leaders emerged and fell in the 1790s, Napoleon consolidated his power: in 1799, he staged a coup and made himself First Consul, and two years later he declared himself Consul for Life. Then, in 1804, almost twenty years after beginning a career as a 16-year-old artillery officer, he crowned himself Emperor of the French.
Out of a regicidal revolutionary republic, Napoleon forged a centralized autocratic state that promised stability after a decade of turmoil and terror. His regime's legacy is complex and contested. He supported republican ideals of meritocracy and freedom of religion, and he promoted secular education and equality under a streamlined code of law, although there were glaring exceptions for women and workers. At the same time, his empire operated as a police state that repressed dissent through censorship and surveillance. Most egregiously, he reinstated slavery and the slave trade, which had been abolished in 1794 in France's Caribbean colonies.
For every celebratory official representation of Napoleon, such as David's Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, there were hundreds of popular satirical images that subverted the heroic persona and portrayed him as a villainous despot. Scathing prints by British caricaturists in particular, including those on view by James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, were meant to undermin the authority and belittle the character of the man given the unflattering nickname "Boney."
Long after his ultimate defeat, Napoleon continued to be a potent political symbol of expansionism and imperialism, as the humorous late nineteenth-century figural jug nearby suggests.
October 23, 2019
The exhibition presents two monumental portraits, made more than 200 years apart, in conversation together for the first time
The Brooklyn Museum is pleased to announce Jacques-Louis David Meets Kehinde Wiley, an exhibition pairing an iconic painting from the Museum’s collection—Kehinde Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005)—with its early nineteenth-century source image: Jacques-Louis David’s Bonaparte Crossing the Alps (1800–1). By displaying the two paintings together, in dialogue with each other for the very first time, the exhibition explores how ideas of race, masculinity, representation, power, and agency have played out across the history of Western portraiture. The presentation is organized by the Brooklyn Museum in collaboration with the Château de Malmaison, where the original version of David’s portrait is permanently displayed. Before traveling to the Brooklyn Museum, the two paintings were on view at the Château de Malmaison.
David’s famous portrait was commissioned in 1800 by King Charles IV of Spain in an effort to win the favor of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was then First Consul of France. In the two centuries since its commission, Bonaparte Crossing the Alps has inspired numerous interpretations, but none seem to resonate in contemporary culture as much as Wiley’s large-scale version. In his Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, Napoleon is replaced with a Black man wearing camouflage fatigues and Timberland boots. By combining the role, stature, and implied historical legacy depicted in Bonaparte Crossing the Alps with visual markers of status from contemporary African American culture, Wiley challenges the art historical canon, critiquing how it has routinely overlooked the collective Black cultural experience.
David posed Napoleon in the tradition of equestrian portraits of historical commanders like Hannibal and Charlemagne, amplifying the grandeur of the portrait, which commemorated the First Consul and Reserve Army’s expedition through the Great Saint Bernard Pass, in the Alps. In the painting, Napoleon leads his soldiers from atop a rearing steed; in actuality he made this journey on the back of a mule. This is just one example of how Bonaparte Crossing the Alps constructed a strategic image of the General as a triumphant military leader while departing from historical accuracy.
In Wiley’s interpretation, the artist replaced the Italian mountainside and ready infantry with a detailed background flooded with sperm cells. To this ensemble, he added an ornate gilded frame with testicular-shaped cartouches in each corner and crowned by a carved self-portrait emerging from yonic volutes. The result transforms and challenges the grand tradition of historical portraiture established by artists like David, calling attention to the long-standing blind spots of canonical Western painting and the need to redress historical biases. The work belongs to an ongoing series of Wiley’s titled Rumors of War, begun in 2005, which includes the artist’s latest work of the same name: a monumental equestrian bronze statue in New York’s Times Square, which was unveiled in September 2019 and is now in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Jacques-Louis David Meets Kehinde Wiley at the Brooklyn Museum marks the first display of David’s portrait in New York, and the first time the two works have been on view together in the United States. To highlight this important occasion, Wiley will collaborate with the Brooklyn Museum on the exhibition design for the U.S. presentation. A video showing Wiley on the grounds of Malmaison will also accompany the project, incorporating the artist’s perspectives on how the Western canon, French portrait tradition, and legacies of colonialism influence his own practice. When displayed together, these two works highlight the importance of re-examining representations of power across two centuries and two cultural contexts.
The exhibition will also feature a selection of complimentary works by Wiley, including a small-scale version of the artist’s recent monumental equestrian statue, Rumors of War. Also on display is Houdon Paul-Louis, a 2011 bust by Wiley that is part of the Museum’s collection. Several works from the Museum’s collection are also on display to provide historical context for Napoleon, including a small bronze equestrian portrait by Antoine-Louis Barye, medals struck by the Emperor to commemorate his achievements, and British prints brutally satirizing him.
Jacques- Louis David Meets Kehinde Wiley is organized by the Brooklyn Museum and Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau. The Brooklyn presentation is curated by Lisa Small, Senior Curator, European Art, and Eugenie Tsai, John and Barbara Vogelstein Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum.