Portrait of Melissa Thompson thumbnail 1
Portrait of Melissa Thompson thumbnail 2
Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
British Galleries, Room 125, Edwin and Susan Davies Gallery

Portrait of Melissa Thompson

2020 (made)

Portrait of Melissa Thompson.

Object details

Object type
Materials and techniques
Oil on linen
Brief description
Portrait of Melissa Thompson (The Yellow Wallpaper Series), Kehinde Wiley, 2020. Oil on linen.
Physical description
Portrait of Melissa Thompson.
  • Height: 265.5cm
  • Width: 201.8cm
  • Depth: 11.5cm
Gallery label
PORTRAIT OF MELISSA THOMPSON FROM THE SERIES ‘THE YELLOW WALLPAPER’ 2020 Nigerian-American artist Kehinde Wiley places people that are marginalised and underrepresented at the centre of his work. In 2019, Wiley came across Melissa Thompson in Dalston, east London, and invited her to sit for this portrait. The style of the painting and her pose recall classical European portraits of white, privileged sitters. Thompson’s presence subverts traditions, raising important questions about race, gender, identity and representation in art. The yellow backdrop is directly inspired by William Morris’s 1884 ‘Wild Tulip’ design, displayed nearby. Painted by Kehinde Wiley (born in Los Angeles, 1977) Oil on linen Purchased with support from Art Fund and a legacy donation from Dr Philip da Costa Museum no. E.59-2021 THE YELLOW WALLPAPER In Kehinde Wiley’s portrait, Melissa Thompson sits defiantly as the yellow wallpaper’s tendrils creep into the foreground. Wiley was inspired by a semiautobiographical story by the American feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935), in which a woman diagnosed with a mental health disorder is confined to bedrest. Over time, her room’s wallpaper comes to represent an agonising, unbreakable barrier, symbolising her sense of entrapment within patriarchal society. In Wiley’s painting series, the wallpaper takes on additional meaning, reminding us of the persistent barriers and challenges that Black women face daily. ‘If you look at all of the paintings that I love in art history, these are the paintings where great powerful men are being celebrated in the big walls of museums throughout the world. What feels really strange is not being able to see a reflection of myself in that world.’ Kehinde Wiley To find out more about how Kehinde Wiley met Melissa Thompson, connect to V&A Free Wi-Fi and scan the QR code or visit bit.ly/va-kehinde-wiley(20.09.2021)
Credit line
Purchased with support from Art Fund and a legacy donation from Dr Philip da Costa
Object history
Kehinde Wiley is a Nigerian-American visual artist living and working between New York and Beijing. He is widely known for his highly naturalistic portraiture of black men and women set against intricately patterned backgrounds.  

Wiley’s approach to painting engages and subverts the visual conventions of historic European and American portraiture, in which the power and privilege of the royal and aristocratic are visually upheld. His own subjects – African-American and African-Diasporic men and women predominantly encountered on the street in cities around the world – assume the heroic poses implicit in these historic depictions as they are each photographed then transferred diligently to canvas at a larger-than-life scale. Beyond the sumptuous renderings of individuals are backdrops of bold and ornate pattern, locating them strictly within the decorative.  In his adoption and disruption of a style once used almost exclusively to depict white, male subjects, Wiley’s portraits elevate the marginalised, challenge negative perceptions of blackness, and raise important questions about race, identity and the politics of representation.   

The Yellow Wallpaper Series 

In 2020 the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow opened Kehinde Wiley’s first solo exhibition at a public institution in the UK. Titled ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, the exhibition featured six new, large-scale portraits of women, painted in the artist’s signature naturalistic style on backgrounds of repeating floral motifs inspired by the wallpaper and textile designs of Morris & Co.   Melissa Thompson, the sitter in this portrait, is from east London and was cast in Dalston in Ridley Road market,

The women featured were cast on the streets of Dalston, Hackney, and selected by Wiley for the ‘carriage of charisma’ they each exuded whilst going about their daily lives. For this series, Wiley was keen to extend his preoccupation with race and class to explore concerns around gender, with each woman “positioned as autonomous, as powerful, as open to individual interpretation and as an emblem of strength within a society of complicated social networks.” Wiley selected ten sitters from his street-casting and has to date completed six portraits from the series.  

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ takes its title from the 1892 feminist text by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a semi-autobiographical story of a women confined to an attic room and driven to mental breakdown as she tries, in defiance of the social and medical codes of her time, to retain her sanity and independence. The torturous pattern of the room’s wallpaper comes to symbolise her sense of imprisonment as it winds its way into the recesses of her mind. Wiley was interested in “the sense of powerlessness and the sense of invention that happens in a person who’s not seen, who’s not respected and whose sense of autonomy is in question”. 

For Wiley, the process of taking figures out of their original environments and locating them strictly within the decorative offers viewers a new way of seeing his subjects; one which – in contrast to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings Wiley references – is unbound by place and by what the featured subject possesses. In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ Wiley’s decorative settings are contemporary re-imaginings of the 19th century wallpapers produced by William Morris’ company.   

The iconic work of designer and social reformer William Morris (born in Walthamstow, 1834) has been a continual reference point for Kehinde Wiley, having encountered his designs (and those inspired by them) in abundance in the second-hand furnishings bought and sold by his mother as he was growing up. In this series, Wiley playfully appropriates the rational order of Morris & Co.’s English flora, allowing curling tendrils to break free of the background and roam into the space of his female subjects. Their dynamism is further heightened by the artist’s bold choice of colour. This collapse of the figure-ground relationship echoes the descriptions of the wallpaper in Gilman’s narrative – as sprawling expression of her plight for freedom and self-definition. Here, the women stand proud and defiant amongst the foliage; resolute, self-possessed and deserving of sublime representation. 

"No pattern should be without some sort of meaning", William Morris 

  Gilman’s 'The Yellow Wallpaper' also holds a strong, personal connection to William Morris. Morris’ daughter, May Morris, herself an accomplished designer, struck up a friendship with Gilman in July 1896 when they first met at an International Socialist Conference in London. That autumn, May Morris invited Gilman to give a lecture at her family home Kelmscott House, Hammersmith. A month later William Morris died, and Gilman sent a moving letter of sympathy, which was a rousing call to arms:

"Do you love to do - to DO and, especially, to make? With that, and the freedom to exercise it, life has no terrors." Charlotte Perkins Gilman 

In the background of Melissa Thompson’s portrait is the William Morris design ‘Wild Tulip’, the ‘plainest’ of Wiley’s chosen patterns, probably to provide contrast with the many colours in Thompson’s outfit. Her pose has echoes of a painting by George Romney, George Bustard Greaves Esq (1786–1786), which follows the model of many 18th century portraits of landed gentry. Greaves sits with legs relaxed and with his chair at an angle to the viewer. Thompson is in a similar pose, her body facing away so that her head turns to confront the viewer. The Regency period chair, not part of Wiley’s original shoot, is a portrait prop the artist regularly uses and contrasts with Thompson’s contemporary slashed jeans and wrist band.  

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Record createdJune 3, 2021
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