The ‘Gainsborough’ Portrait That Got Away


(photo: Kehinde Wiley)


 SEP 22, 2010 2 PM

Cincinnati Art Museum has an important new exhibition on display through Jan. 2 called Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman. Organized by Benedict Leca, curator of European paintings, sculpture and drawings on the occasion of the cleaning/restoration of the museum’s own Gainsborough portrait of “Ann Ford (Mrs. Thicknesse),” it brings together the 18th-century British artist’s paintings of women from top museums around the world.

A key theme of the show is that these women worked with the artist to defy gender roles of the time. Thus, they were “modern women.”

But there is one portrait planned for the show that got away. Strangely, it would have been new — one of the first, if not the first, portrait commissioned by the museum since Andy Warhol’s 1985 rendering of Pete Rose — Grace Jones by Kehinde Wiley.

This takes a little explaining. Wiley is a thirtysomething New York-based African-American artist who has found fame with his paintings of young black males in the manner of art’s past masters of portraiture. Jones, born in Jamaica, became an icon of dance music, fashion and film in the 1980s for her tall, androgynously avant-garde looks. The idea of commissioning Wiley to paint an iconic contemporary woman of the arts — and put the result in the Gainsborough — was Leca’s. The artist proposed Jones as his subject.

“The point of the show is to restore agency and self-direction to these (Gainsborough) women, just as Kehinde Wiley himself is re-inscribing black men into this preserve of traditional white-male power,” Leca says.

So Leca, with approval from art museum trustees, flew to New York to propose the project to Wiley.

“And then he said Grace Jones is the one we want to do,” Leca says. “And he was over the moon. His assistant would call me once a month and say, ‘Benedict, What’s up? Have you gotten through to Grace Jones?’ ”

That turned out to be a problem. Jones is reclusive. Wiley wanted a sitting, from which he would take a photograph to base his work. Leca says Wiley’s powerful dealer, Jeffrey Deitch (now director of LAMOCA), even had Alexander McQueen ready to create a dress for the sitting. But then McQueen died Feb. 11.

Leca had contacted Jones’ agent in London and wrote to Jean Paul Goude, the French fashion photographer to whom she is close. And he wrote directly to Jones through another photographer. No response.

“You’re talking about a Pop diva who has been around forever,” Leca says. “She doesn’t need exposure. The heartbreaking thing is we had it all in place and Grace Jones just couldn’t be found.”

On another note, Cincinnati Art Museum was the first American art museum to stage a retrospective of the artist — in 1931. Looking into that history, Leca found a 1934 Cincinnati Post article in which writer Eugene Segal recounts that the artist’s most famous portrait, The Blue Boy,” had a secret Cincinnati exhibition in 1922. The California collector Henry Edward Huntington bought it from a British duke for a record price, causing an outcry in England, and had it shipped to California. (It is now on display at the Huntington Library and has never been loaned.)

“Halfway down, they stopped in Cincinnati,” Leca says, citing the article. “They called the various directors, who came down in the middle of the night and opened up the box, looked at ‘The Blue Boy,’ packed it back into the box and off it went. I don’t think anybody knows about that. I looked at the minutes of the directors around that time and nowhere is it mentioned by anyone except Segal.”


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