Power Through Art With Kehinde Wiley

I want to highlight an artist that I really enjoy and share his story with you. Kehinde Wiley, opens a new window was born in Los Angeles to a Nigerian father and an African American mother. Growing up, Wiley’s mother encouraged and supported his curiosity for art and saw it as a way to keep him and his brother out of trouble. It didn’t take long for both Wiley and his brother to become fascinated with the art practice at a young age, which lead them both to discover a passion for painting portraits.

Wiley’s portraits are unmistakable to anything else I've seen — his hyperrealism, opens a new window paintings are breathtakingly colorful and always make a point to portray persons with black or brown skin in a proud and heroic posture. Displaying his subjects with such strong characteristics is very important to Wiley and his work. You can often find him referencing paintings from Europe’s Old Masters, opens a new window, mimicking the poses of their subjects exactly how they were originally painted but with a contemporary twist. For an example, check out Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps, opens a new window painted in 1801 compared to Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, opens a new window painted in 2005, or Théodore Chassériau’s The Two Sisters, opens a new window painted in 1842 compared to Wiley’s The Two Sisters, opens a new window painted in 2012, and Titian’s Penitent Magdalene, opens a new window painted in 1533 compared to Wiley’s After Titian's Penitent Mary Magdalene, opens a new window painted in 2009. 

As for the subjects portrayed in Wiley’s paintings, he has been known to literally stop people on the street to ask if they would model for him — which I believe makes these works of art that much more meaningful. These are ordinary people that we see in Wiley’s paintings. These are people who live in the neighborhoods that he walks through everyday and people who never imagine would be immortalized in a beautiful work of art by a world-renowned artist. Admittedly, I really enjoy graffiti and street art, opens a new window because they are both forms of art that ordinary people have the opportunity to see and connect with, and Wiley’s process for choosing his subjects resonates with me on that same level.

But Wiley doesn’t just paint portraits of ordinary people — in addition to being an amazingly talented artist with a tremendous body of work, Wiley may be best known for his large-than-life portrait of President Barack Obama, opens a new window that he was personally asked to do in 2017. Can you imagine getting that call from President Obama himself? No pressure, right? That painting cemented Wiley as one of the most important artists of our generation and it now proudly lives in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, opens a new window in Washington D.C. for anyone that visits the public museum to enjoy.


The Milwaukee Art Museum, opens a new window created a teacher resource page with some great printable activities, including a Kehinde Wiley coloring page, opens a new window you can download. Print out a copy at home or by using our Print Anywhere service and bring your own artistic flair to a Wiley artwork!

This coloring page is from Wiley’s St. Dionysus, opens a new window painting, which permanently lives at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Want to Learn More?

Here are some books you can check out from us filled with more of Kehinde Wiley’s work, as well as a great documentary that you can check out as a DVD or stream on Hoopla:

Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley

The Obama Portraits

Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley

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