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The Black Count, Kehinde Wiley and Napoleon

Mario Moore

What’s up, folks. 


As a painter, I often wonder about some art critics’ views on certain shows. Many of these critics understand art history, but cannot grasp history itself, whatsoever. Their mistakes are understandable. They’ve been fed historical lies—byproducts of history’s whitewashing. But they can't remain ignorant forever.

A good example of this askew thinking is an excerpt from a review by Jessica Dawson on the Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic show, which is currently at the Seattle Museum:

"What does it mean to put a young black man on a horse and call him Napoleon? If it isn't dangling a fantasy and false hope, then at least it implies that young urban blacks are in desperate need of uplift. You call that empowerment?"

This review by Jessica Dawson in the Village Voice is a year old and so was the opening at the Brooklyn Museum for Wiley's traveling retrospective, but people should understand history before they make these problematic claims.

So, how are The Black Count, Kehinde Wiley and Napoleon even connected? Believe it or not, it's painting. Kehinde Wiley is a painter most people know; you may have seen his work on the television show, Empire. The Black Count is a recent book written by Tom Reiss about French military legend Thomas-Alexandre Dumas—more on him later. Napoleon Bonaparte is the short French guy everyone either loves or hates. 

There is one painting by Wiley that Dawson briefly touched on in her review, but I am going to tell you the huge mistake she made and what it means for the representation of Black men.

Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005


Jaques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1801

Wiley’s painting, is a direct homage to the18th century French painter, Jacques-Louis David work, Napoleon Crossing the Alps. It’s the same painting. The difference between the works is Wiley's all to well-known formula of swapping out White people and inserting a Black person. But that "swapping" is why this piece is so important. Napoleon was not the first member of his troops to cross the Alps.

Paul Delaroche, Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, 1850

He didn’t even cross the Alps on horseback. According to history, Napoleon crossed the Alps on a donkey after the initial taking of the mountain by his troops.

The original 18th century painting, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, was first and foremost propaganda. Bonaparte asked David to portray him "calm, mounted on a fiery steed" (Calme sur un cheval fougueux). What is really being represented in the David painting is a denial by Napolean to allow Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who commanded and led the Army of the Alps, to be glorified in paint form.

Dumas was ahead of his time, so much so, that many legends of his battles and stature cloud his name.

Dude was Black; born to a French white slave owner and slave mother from Saint-Domingue, now modern Haiti. Dumas is also the father of famous writer Alexandre Dumas who wrote, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

Oliver Pichat, Général Thomas Alexandre Dumas, 1790s

The reason Dumas has remained obscure until the recent publishing of the Black Count is because Napoleon was throwing mad shade. Napoleon tried everything in his power to erase Dumas from history. He went as far as eliminating a lot of the extremely progressive laws in 18th century France that allowed a Black man to ascend to one of the highest ranks in a continental European army. Dumas held the distinction of being the highest-ranking Black commander in the entire history of any white military until 1989, when American Colin Powell became a four-star general—the closest United States equivalent of Général d'Armée, Dumas' highest rank.

Dumas was a beast. Like David’s painting, Wiley inscribed the names of generals on the rocks—even added the name of the sitter in his painting. But both paintings fail to list General Dumas’ name. Wiley may not know it, but he has provided a way for the representation of this powerful historical figure to be brought into a contemporary light. Wiley’s painting, in conversation with its historic counterpart by the artist, Jaques-Louis David, has unlocked the door to expose hidden truths.

So, my response to Dawson’s question, "What does it mean to put a young black man on a horse and call him Napoleon” is, What does it mean to put the fraud Napoleon on horseback and call him General Thomas Alexandre Dumas?

If you want to know all about Napoleon’s jealous streak and just how great Dumas was, check out the book, The Black Count.

By:  M. Moore