Perhaps the most ornate frame in the Columbus Museum of Art borders the portrait of a street kid. And this kid’s got the attitude of a king. He juts his chin, wears his t-shirt like a robe, grasps a scepter, and stands tall against a background of Victorian wallpaper colored like African textiles. The artist, Kehinde Wiley, found this kid walking a Columbus neighborhood. Wiley likes painting scamps from the streets in the poses of Old Master portraits. Wiley titled his painting Portrait of Andries Stilte II.
“And you can see the reason for the title,” I tell museum visitors. (I’ve been volunteering as a docent at the museum since I retired from teaching.)
“Look at this smaller painting,” I say. “This is Portrait of Andries Stilte. He was a standard bearer from an important Dutch family. And he commissioned Verspronck to paint him in all his pomp.”
Some of my tours are full of kids from Columbus City Schools, and they like the way Wiley bests Versponck in size and framing. And the kid Andries is way more cool with steel-toed boots and big tread and saggy jeans.
I like to visit Andries II early in my tour with these kids. In front of his portrait, they breathe a little easier. Their faces open, their shoulders relax, and their chins go almost as high as Andries II’s chin.
The art museum often intimidates city kids. The museum is quiet and pristine and built like a palace. In the museum, they hear a different vocabulary. Cameras watch, and guards speak only to scold. So many kids freeze up and shut down.
But, in front of Portrait of Andries Stilte II, they find a place. They leave the painting walking taller, like maybe they have crowns on their heads. Wiley has recognized royalty in them. And Wiley loosens their tongues for the rest of the tour. After all, when a royal speaks, people listen.