The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who is Kehinde Wiley, the artist behind President Obama’s official portrait?

Former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama watch as artist Kehinde Wiley, right, speaks during an unveiling ceremony at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Before he unveiled the official portrait of former president Barack Obama on Monday, artist Kehinde Wiley was already widely popular in the contemporary art world.

Over the previous two decades, the Los Angeles-raised and New York City-based artist became known for his larger-than-life canvasses showing contemporary African Americans within centuries-old trappings of power and status. Many of his highly sought-after works, which sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, evoke Old Master paintings.

He’s also become known for his process of basing portraits off photographs of everyday people he meets on city streets around the world. It’s a method he first started using in Harlem, where these amateur models would choose classical images as inspiration for the resulting portraits.

In “Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps,” we see a young man wearing a white bandanna, Army fatigues and Timberland boots while also wearing a cape and riding a horse — just like the 1801 Jacques-Louis David portrait of the French leader.

Wiley has also painted several celebrities. Michael Jackson commissioned a portrait, and the resulting 2010 “Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson)” shows the King of Pop in a regal uniform.

In 2005, VHI commissioned Wiley to paint portraits of famous musicians for its Hip Hop Honors program, and several of those portraits ended up in a 2008 National Portrait Gallery exhibit about hip-hop culture. His portrait of LL Cool J evoked John D. Rockefeller, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were reimagined as a company of 17th-century Dutch city guards.

The Obamas’ portraits are not what you’d expect and that’s why they’re great

“So much of my work has not been fully investigated,” he told HuffPost in 2017. “Many people see my early work simply as portraits of black and brown people. Really, it’s an investigation of how we see those people and how they have been perceived over time. The performance of black American identity feels very different from actually living in a black body. There’s a dissonance between inside and outside.”

The Obama portrait avoids some of the same constructions of his previous work — here, the former commander in chief is seated, not in a pose that directly references an Old Master painting, and without anachronistic accessories.

But it’s clearly a Wiley. Just like how Obama’s portrait has a wall of greenery and flowers, many of Wiley’s previous works have repetitive, ornate and bright backgrounds, which he has called “sheer decorative devices.”

“Things that come from things like wallpaper or the architectural facade ornamentation of a building,” Wiley explains on his website. “In a way it robs the painting of any sense of place or location, and it’s located strictly in an area of the decorative.”

Wiley, one of six children, grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s and was about 11 years old when he enrolled in a small art conservatory, according to his website. He went on to attend San Francisco Art Institute, and then Yale for a master of fine arts.

In recent years, Wiley has made some departures from his signature images of men against wallpaper-like backgrounds. In 2012, he turned a focus on black women with “An Economy of Grace.” And his 2017 series “Trickster” includes 11 paintings of contemporary African American artists that he has said explore the relationship between each artist and a broader community, with backdrops depicting surrealistic, allegorical scenarios.

Bold, provocative art that looks like money

His career-spanning exhibition “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” traveled between 2015 and 2017. As Post art critic Philip Kennicott wrote, the paintings “are often distinctly homoerotic” and that “Art historical references abound, with Wiley borrowing poses and gestures from paintings by Dutch masters, Velázquez, Holbein, Manet, Landseer and Titian.”

His work isn’t without detractors. His huge canvasses have been criticized  as formulaic and uninteresting by some. There’s also the mystery that surrounds his process, including how much of his paintings are made by his assistants in his studios.

Wiley spoke to what he described as “the discomfort with a large-scale art practice” to GQ in 2013, arguing it “comes from a myth in an artistic process that never existed. Rubens, Michelangelo: Both had large studios with many assistants. There is a long line of artists who work with other artists to realize a larger vision than is possible with one hand.”

He continued: “Education in art history taught me this, as did being steeped in the reality of painting. My interest is in completing an image that is spectacular beyond belief. My fidelity is to the image and the art and not to the bragging rights of making every stroke on every flower. I’m realistic. It’s not romantic, but that romance never existed.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the location of a 2008 exhibit on hip-hop culture. It was at the National Portrait Gallery, not the National Gallery of Art.