Kehinde Wiley’s 2005 painting Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps interprets Jacques-Louis David’s 1801 painting Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard, with which the French artist commemorated Napoleon’s defeat of Austrian forces in the Battle of Marengo. In David’s equestrian portrait, the golden-cloaked general rides a horse up a mountain. Looking straight at the viewer, the calm, supremely confident victor points his right arm up as he controls the bucking steed with his left. Below the horse’s body, soldiers and cannons can be seen, and the background is the harsh, rocky landscape of the Alps.
Wiley has re-envisioned Napoleon as a contemporary Black man. The artist has duplicated the equestrian poses of both rider and horse, as well as the stony platform under the horse’s hooves. While the subject also wears a golden cloak, much of his clothing is very different: he wears a vividly patterned green suit that suggests African-print fabric; rather than a tricorne (three-cornered hat), he wears a white scarf around his head, and his feet are clad in contemporary lace-up boots rather than riding boots. Despite using the same stony foreground under the horse’s hooves, the painting indicates that it is a studio portrait through the use of a red-and-gold brocade backdrop. Through its flamboyant theatricality, Wiley’s vision of heroics points to the importance, presence, and experience of Black individuals in modern society.
In early 2020, Wiley’s and David’s paintings were exhibited together at the Brooklyn Museum. The museum’s listing for Wiley’s painting notes,
The artist ... confronts and critiques historical traditions that do not acknowledge Black cultural experience. Wiley presents a new brand of portraiture that redefines and affirms Black identity and simultaneously questions the history of Western painting.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s mixed-media collage State Names, in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, presents a map of the United States, southern Canada, and northern Mexico that is almost totally covered by dripping liquid. The state and province names of the title appear as typed white labels, apparently cut out of newspapers, that stand out against the multi-colored states. However, not all states have labels; the names featured, according to the museum’s webpage, “are those that stem from indigenous sources.” The museum’s webpage also states that the artist uses
iconic shapes formed with clippings from newspapers, including the New York Times and Char-Koosta—her reservation's newspaper.
Much of the liquid is white, but some is gray, green, or rust-colored. While at first glance, it seems to be paint, it also suggests pollution or large quantities of tears.
Rather than a singular portrait, Smith offers a broad vision of the North American territory that emphasizes injustice and obliteration. Her vision prompts the viewer to reconsider familiar terrain and the educational processes by which they learned it. The basic format of the simplified map resembles the kind by which children learn to identify the states; the cities and topography are not indicated. The original indigenous land distribution was replaced by these artificial lines, while the names of the states provided derive from indigenous words.
In both of these pieces, known images and Western histories are reformed to represent those populations that have traditionally been marginalized.