Pt IV: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.

Navigating Blackness in Eighteenth-Century Britain

The politics of a good likeness; the power of representation. These are concepts, which one might contemplate within the seemingly limitless study of portraiture. Once we have brushed away the layers of a painting to do with resemblance and sought out archival information about those who are being depicted, we come to question the power of the artist; the responsibility of the creator in this specific context.[50]  A “likeness” in portraiture is often understood to be the act of creating a faithful representation, in two dimensions, of the individual physiognomy of the sitter. In this essay we have encountered some of the ways we should endeavour to view images that do not explicitly display people of colour; to find the mortar of slavery between the bricks from which this polished discipline was built. We have seen what it is to have black creators forging their own place within the art historical canon. But what do we make of the image of blackness in the white mind?[51]

The eighteenth-century saw the height of industry and Transatlantic trade, so what becomes of the “faithful” representation when the imminence of slavery looms, to darken the image further than something which is supposedly only “skin deep?”[52]  In this chapter, we seek out the performances of people of colour in the eyes of those who thought themselves to be superior in that period. The retrospective methodology of this essay allows us to use the tools we have gathered over previous chapters to continue to chip away at the polished glazing put on history and amplify the accessibility to its unadulterated truths. We have touched on the contemporary commentaries of blackness in a white-centric world by royal academicians of our own time such as Yinka Shonibare, but what of the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the institution’s founding president and it’s first theorist?[53]

In this debate on the decolonization of art history, we find ourselves using new lenses to locate the blackness in white society, to find the cracks in the porcelain mould. What if one of those many “cracks” was not hidden, but evidence of a self-inflicted blow to shatter what was considered the image of eighteenth-century politeness?[54]  What of the instances when black people were not an idea or a trace of the atrocities they were subjected to, but a physical manifestation of an individual?

We have come to accept the lack of black faces in many “traditional” establishments as the norm. Perhaps it is that lowered expectation that would leave a viewer of this mindset astounded by the majesty presented by this study of A Young Black Man exhibited so prominently at Tate Britain, London (fig. 14). Standing directly in front of him, we mirror his contemplative expression. Although he is not looking directly at us but up, in an almost heavenly manner, we still find ourselves surrendering our undivided attention to this man who’s story we do not know. His expression is relaxed, but in his upwards gaze we can make out a slight tensing in the jaw; the light, capturing his bone structure almost tricks the dimensional awareness of our minds. With his sureness and stillness contrasting the vigorous, hurried rumblings of the clouds, which surround him, he looks heroic, ethereal even. Visually, this is not unlike the work of Kehinde Wiley.

Pt IV: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.
Figure 14. Unknown artist, formerly attributed to Joshua Reynolds, A Young Black Man (Francis Barber?), undated. Oil on canvas, 29.7 x 34.6 in. Tate, London. 

But who is this man? And why did he matter to somebody like Reynolds? This chapter is filled with questions on the identity of this specific individual, speculated to be Francis Barber.[55]  His significance in our argument is based on the way he is painted and the nature of the “likeness” itself. Half of the battle is that we cannot judge its accuracy. We do not know if it is a portrait of the individual or if features have been suppressed to a generic study. One of the key attributes of a portrait is our belief that it represents a named individual. Without that name, we cannot even be sure if it can be categorised as a true portrait.

The painting’s incomplete nature highlights the importance of each brushstroke as a choice. But potentially not Reynolds’ choice; for, this specific version is supposedly a copy speculated to have been painted by one of his pupils James Northcote.[56] This speculation has yet to be proven because Reynolds often encouraged his pupils to copy his work in an effort to master their own talents.[57]  The imagined original is at the Menil Collection, Houston, Texas (fig. 15).[58]

Pt IV: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.
Figure 15. Joshua Reynolds, A Young Black, c.1770. Oil on canvas 78.7 x 63.7 cm. The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas.

Now we approach a rather profound point within our argument. In Bundock’s The Fortunes of Francis Barber, he stated that there were “at least five” other versions of this image aside from the one in Houston, making a total of six that we are aware of.[59]  This is paramount in our discussion because it means this image mattered. It is normally quite unusual for Tate to exhibit copies, but their willingness to do so in this instance, further indicates the extent to which they also believe this image matters. The copy’s presence at Tate is a modern testament to the importance of the image.

In Figures of Empire, the accompanying publication to their exhibition, Chadwick and Gamer express how Reynolds’ work “powerfully illuminate[s] the links between portraiture, slavery and abolitionism in this period.”[60]  Reynolds had the choice to pay attention to whatever subjects he pleased. The creation and abundant replication of this portrait, in particular, symbolises what needed to be done to normalise the existence of black people as liberated slaves.

It is, however, pivotal that we keep with the understanding that the process of painting is a string of conscious and deliberate choices. The original painting, with its still rather hazy provenance, was the manifestation of a face and personality through the medium of paint on canvas. We are looking at a white, powerful individual’s perception of somebody who could have been his footman, a servant of his friend Samuel Johnson or indeed any dark-skinned person around him because it remains unclear. Potentially, copies like the example from the Tate show us another artist’s impressions of the painterly decisions made by their teacher, rather than their own perception. Graham Harrison discusses these “incarnations” of Britain’s Africa.[61]  The manifestation of a physical “domestication” which seeks to bring African-ness in its curated essence to the western audience.[62]  Perhaps the point being made here is that, though this piece is of high importance to our study, we must view it with some reservations. Whilst this image, amongst Reynolds’ other paintings, including his commissions for affluent individuals like Lady Elizabeth Keppel and Charles Stanhope with their servant present, it still confirms the permission required for blacks to be seen (fig. 16 and 17). People of colour in these studies are either specimens to be studied, property or components. A sort of contrasting piece. When we wish to highlight the whiteness in painting, we modulate the shadows and add darkness to further articulate the difference between light and dark. It is both a painterly and societal chiaroscuro effect. 

Pt IV: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.
Figure 16. Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lady Elizabeth Keppel and a Servant, c. 1761. Oil on canvas, dimensions unspecified. Woburn Collection, Woburn Abbey, England. 

Pt IV: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.
Figure 17. Sir Joshua Reynolds, Charles Stanhope, third Earl of Harrington, and a Servant, 1782. Oil on canvas, 93 x 56 in. Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut. 

Bartholomew Dandridge uses physical manifestations of ownership to liken an enslaved servant to having less value than a dog (fig. 18). In his 1725 portrait, the dog wears a gold collar and looks up at his owner in the same way the servant does wearing the same collar in “iron or silver.”[63]  Even those that held their own wealth such as Dido Elizabeth Belle in her famous double portrait recently attributed to David Martin, she is the fleeting figure who contrasts the static essence of polite whiteness embodied in her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (fig. 19).[64]  Though she influenced her great uncle, Lord Mansfield on political decisions regarding the abolition of slavery and matters of African lives as commodity, as a result of her mixed ethnicity, she lived her life in a constant state of displacement.[65]

Pt IV: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.
Figure 18. Bartholomew Dandridge, A Young Girl with an Enslaved Servant and a Dog, c. 1725. Oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Pt IV: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.
Figure 19. David Martin, Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, c.1778. Oil on canvas, dimensions unspecified. Scone Palace, Perthshire Scotland.

Equality in the representation of people of colour in western portraiture is somewhat unheard of. What might Kehinde Wiley make of such pictures and how would they translate to our understanding of his twenty-first-century image of a decolonized art history? If we were to give these portraits to the artist who this essay so heavily concerns itself, could the same methodology be applied? This essay proves we need to cultivate the way we present art to wider society, who typically do not delve into archival files based on one of the many images they see on the gallery walls. We need not regale these characters in finery, we simply seek to know who they are. This is not to disparage Wiley’s work in any way, it is quite the opposite. The lack of documentation and attention paid to the “figures of empire” as described by Chadwick and Gamer is what makes their argument so striking.[66]  These figures are there, but in the minds of many art historians, and thus the wider society to whom they display their findings, they do not matter.


[50] Harry Berger, “Fictions of the Pose: Facing the Gaze of Early Modern Portraiture” Representations, no. 46 (1994): 88-93.

[51] David Bindman et al, The Image of the Black in Western Art. Vol. 3 (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[52] Cedric Herring, Verna Keith, and Hayward Derrick Horton. Skin deep: How race and complexion matter in the “color-blind” era (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004).

[53] Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses, ed. Robert R. Wark (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 1997); Esther Chadwick and Meredith Gamer, Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain. (Farmington: Lewis Walpole Library, 2014), 25.

[54] David Solkin, Art in Britain 1660-1815 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015), 90.

[55] Michael Bundock, The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015), This publication discusses the life of Francis Barber, but uses Reynolds’ study as its front cover.

[56] Bundock, Francis Barber, 214.

[57] ibid.

[58] ibid., 215.

[59] Bundock, Francis Barber, 214. Bundock states that known versions are in The British Museum, two are at The Victoria and Albert and the Tate also has two.

[60] Chadwick and Gamer, Figures of Empire, 25.

[61] Graham Harrison, The African Presence: Representations of Africa in the Construction of Britishness (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2013), 8.

[62] ibid.

[63] Chadwick and Gamer, Figures of Empire, 8.

[64] It was previously attributed to Johan Zoffany. Bindman, The Image of the Black, 163.

[65] J Krikler, “The Zong and the Lord Chief Justice.” History Workshop Journal. 64, no. 1 (2007): 29-47; Gene Adams, “Dido Elizabeth Belle: A Black Girl at Kenwood,” Camden History Review 12, no. 1-84 (1984): 10. See also, Carolyn Steedman, “Lord Mansfield’s Women.” Past & Present, no. 176 (2002): 105-43.

[66] Chadwick and Gamer, Figures of Empire, 1. 

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Art, History, Navigating Blackness

More Articles

Ravi Shah

Art Attaché Articles Guide

Write an Article today! Come see how easy it is for you to get involved. This guide will show you how to write your articles on Art Attache.

Read More »
Ravi Shah

The NEW Rise of the Curator

Emerging out of this global crisis is a new age for the consumption of Art culture. Covid-19 has hit the art industry hard both in sales and exhibitions however there is light at the end of the tunnel…

Read More »