Inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of John D. Rockefeller, LL Cool J wanted this portrait to have a pose similar to John Singer Sargent’s painting of the philanthropist. ("Now On View: LL Cool J by Kehinde Wiley," National Portrait Gallery)
The portraits show the differences between the two men while framing each in similar physical surroundings and similar physical poses, which also illustrate the different dynamics of the times of their lives and the cultures of their lives.
The chairs each sit in are rounded. The back in Rockefeller's is curved while the whole chair in Cool J's is round, so the curve of the back is an extension of the structure of the whole, symbolic perhaps for Cool J's work being an extension of his whole being.
The background in each painting blends in a surrealistic manner into the floor of each painting. In Rockefeller's, see the foot of the rear left leg: it seems to be floating on the colors of the background. In Cool J's, the feet of both the right and left legs are quite obviously floating on the green and red background. Both backgrounds are swirls of alternating color: Rockefeller is backed by unformed swirls of variously lighted and shadowed maroon (violet-purple) while Cool J is backed by a structured swirl of red and green in a Victorian plush wallpaper design in which a crest or coat of arms is embedded.
Their personal differences are shown by Kehinde Wiley's variations on the themes, patterns, shapes, and designs found in Sargent's work. The affinity between them--Cool J requested a portrait similar to Sargent's Rockefeller work after having read a Rockefeller biography, as indicated in the quotation above--is shown by the structure, composition, subject matter, physical objects and directional elements shared by each.
Both are seated in chairs that are the only physical objects sharing the portrait space with the subject, and both are angled physically to the subject's left, or the viewer's right. Both have one leg crossed over the other at the knee (this is a style of leg crossing usually indicative of upper class education and lifestyle; other classes of men in America as a rule prefer the less sophisticated ankle-over-knee leg cross). Both have forearms and hands in contact with their bodies as opposed to in contact with the chair arms. Both are positioned with their left shoulder lower than their right shoulder.
Variations within these similarities indicate their different historical periods, their ages and their health, and their cultures. Cool J has left leg crossed over right while Rockefeller has right over left. Rockefeller's arms and hands are crisscrossed over his torso with his coat (probably a silk smoking jacket no longer in our contemporary times) pulled tightly around him. This combination of crisscrossed arms over a tightly closed jacket gives him the appearance of frailty and ill health: He appears to be at the end of his days and the end of his life. The colors covering and surrounding him are in keeping with this impression: They are dark and muted, without light except in the varying swirls of subdued light in the background and falling on his face and body from the right.
Cool J's arms are angled inward toward the center of his torso but, significantly, they don't meet in the center and certainly do not cross over. His hands are resting on his thighs with his fingers posed in active positions, one with fingers open, and the other with fingers curled in: one metaphorically ready to work with musical notes, and the other ready to defend what he is rapping about. Cool J's suit jacket is open and his vest bulging with vitality over a silk tie that seems lighter than air. This combination of arms, hands and clothing gives him the appearance of life, vigor, vitality and power. This is quite the opposite of Rockefeller's impression. The colors covering and surrounding Cool J are in keeping with this impression: They are light (white), bright, vibrant, and complements on the color palette (red is complementary with green). Bright light falls across his whole body from the left. Neither portrait shows the men's feet.
The final detail is how and where their eyes are looking. Rockefeller's eyes are in full light while Cool J's are under the shadow of his cap (Rockefeller is bareheaded). Rockefeller looks to the right as does Cool J. Rockefeller looks up and to the distance, seemingly to the source of the light. There is a seeming look of guilelessness to his aging eyes. Cool J looks toward the painter but slightly up and over his head as though caught musing on some private thought of weight and significance. He does not look into the light as does Rockefeller. Their respective cultures are captured in these details. Rockefeller was a beacon of the best of America in his day (whatever may be known about him now) while Cool J is part of a--sometimes psychologically and physically destructive--counterculture in America in our day.
The subject matter of each portrait is fairly different. LL Cool J emerged as one of the strongest voices of the rap movement at a time when the genre was outside of the norm. Rockefeller represents one of the ultimate insiders in being able to enjoy political, economic, and social power. In terms of the paintings themselves, it is interesting to note that the subjects of each portrait are framed differently. Rockefeller is shown to be avoiding eye contact with the viewer, as his sight is fixed elsewhere, on a target unknown. LL Cool J, in contrast, is shown dead on staring back at his viewer, almost demanding that the viewer construct their own reality of the portrait. The legs crossed and sitting position of both subjects allow each to acquire a regal quality, one of definite power and empowerment. The portraits convey that these are men to be respected. Sargent's Rockefeller's arms closed off, though, reflects a certain distance between us and the subject. LL Cool J's fist made and open stance indicates a body language where interaction is almost impossible to avoid. The differences in backgrounds are also noteworthy, as Rockefeller's background is a muted brown and black, while the backdrop from the rap icon is filled with color and a coat of arms, symbolizing much of the rap image that LL Cool J sought to create.