Kehinde Wiley’s triumphant Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005), a hallmark of our collection, comes face to face with the nineteenth-century painting on which it is based: Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801). The unprecedented pairing of these two magisterial portraits, in the exhibition Jacques-Louis David Meets Kehinde Wiley, also marks the first time David’s original version of Napoleon Crossing the Alps is on view in New York.
Seen together, the works by David and Wiley reveal how race, masculinity, power, and representation layer onto portraiture and shape the writing of history. Both paintings cast their protagonists — be it the French general Napoleon Bonaparte or an unnamed man in everyday streetwear — within a heroic tradition of equestrian portraiture. However, each artist defines an icon that reflects the unique political, historical, social, and artistic conditions of their day and age. This project emerges from a collaboration with the Château de Malmaison in France, whose presentation Kehinde Wiley rencontre Jacques-Louis David, from October 9, 2019, through January, 6, 2020, unites both portraits in the historic home of Josephine and Napoleon Bonaparte.