With his rendering of President Barack Obama, Kehinde Wiley became the first African American to ever paint an official presidential portrait, but the new-found fame has also drawn attention to some of the artist’s more boundary-pushing past works.
Two paintings from 2012, depicting the Biblical story of Judith beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes, began making the rounds online on Monday. In Wiley’s rendering, Judith is depicted as a black woman and Holofernes as a white woman.
Fans of the Obama portrait will recognize Wiley’s photo-realistic human figures, distinct colors and prominent use of floral backgrounds.
“Judith and Holofernes is from Wiley’s most recent body of work and his first series of paintings to feature female subjects,” a 2012 explanation of the work from the North Carolina Museum of Art foundation reads. “Wiley translates this image of a courageous, powerful woman into a contemporary version that resonates with fury and righteousness.”
In a New York Magazine piece also from 2012, Wiley explained that the impetus for the work came from the renditions of the Biblical scene by Renaissance artists Caravaggio and Gentileschi.
In keeping with his long-running style of painting black subjects in poses based on classic imagery from Western art and iconography, Wiley depicted Judith as a powerful black woman. His reasons for keeping Holofernes white and changing the general into a woman remain less clear.