Amy Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor asks something of viewers

I have called Amy Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor the most important painting of the 21st century to date. It possesses all the hallmarks of the greatest paintings of the two previous centuries: a brilliant artist, at the height of his – now her – game, powerfully and insightfully addressing a societal catastrophe.

In the 20th century, Picasso’s Guernica exposed the shocking death and devastation caused from the bombing by air of a small town in Spain by the Nazi air force in support of Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco. In the 19th century, Goya’s The Third of May, 1808, put on trial a firing squad of faceless French troops who train their bayoneted rifles on a kneeling Spaniard, arms outstretched, helpless, the last moment of his life to be crushed by Napolean’s invading, imperialist army.

Sherald takes on the centuries-old American plague of police violence against Black citizens. Her painting parts ways with Picasso and Goya by featuring an identifiable casualty by name, and casting her not in the scene of the outrage, but serenely – heavenly – beyond it.

I have had the fortune now to see all three paintings in person after visiting the Speed Art Museum in Louisville where Sherald’s portrait debuted to the public in the spring of 2021. Sherald’s picture lives up to the two Spanish icons, with a considerable twist.

Amy Sherald portrait of Breonna Taylor at Speed Art Museum

Amy Sherald parts ways with Goya and Picasso

Guernica, at over 25 feet wide, and Third of May, at over 11 feet wide, are massive paintings. Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor comes in at 54 x 43 inches. As such, and depicting only one figure, not many, the painting creates a more intimate viewing experience. Taylor, as painted by Sherald, looks you in the directly in the eye. Her eyes, in fact, follow onlookers as they circle the painting and view it from every angle.

The most powerful position to view the painting from is its left side. Taylor looks down at you here, floating – angelic – above. She’s looking you straight in the eye. It’s not a passive inspection. She’s putting a responsibility on you. She’s asking, “so, what are you going to do about it?”

Taylor’s portrait has the extraordinary effect of directly communicating with viewers.

“You’ve come all this way to see my picture,” Taylor seems to say. “Now, what are you going to do about police violence so there are no other portraits like mine?”

No onlooker can prevent another Breonna Taylor from being senselessly murdered by police. A beautiful, hopeful, young Black woman’s life ended by a spree of racist violence. Since Breonna Taylor’s death, it’s already happened repeatedly again. It will continue to. But we can all do something. That’s what Taylor’s portrait demands: do something.

“I’m up here – you think I want to be up here – I did my part – don’t just look at me – what are you going to do?”

Join a local civil rights organization, donate money to charities fighting police violence, speak out to defund the police, run for office, attend city council meetings, educate yourself to the nation’s horrific and ongoing history of white supremacy, educate your friends and family, vote – do something!

The demand for personal action the painting puts on viewers, its one-on-one experience, creates a completely different feeling than Guernica or Third of May, 1808. This is not a monumental, sweeping, cinematic picture, this is a personal picture, with a personal appeal. Guernica and Third of May, 1808, speak to humanity, casting a wide net using specific tragedies to indict fascism and dictators and governments run amok worldwide. Sherald’s picture does not speak to a universal, it addresses a specific American problem with a specific American victim. And it requires action from viewers in a way the other two don’t.

But that feeling comes only from viewing the painting on the left. A center or right, Taylor feels more removed, passive. Her gaze not as direct, the experience not as intimate.

As with the sky or the ocean, the colors in Sherald’s portrait can’t be captured exactly by camera. They are soft, permutations of blue. The whole painting has an ethereal quality to it. There are no visible brushstrokes. The paint application is light.

Amy Sherald portrait of Breonna Taylor at Speed Art Museum, from left

A painting, not a person. A painting, and a person.

I am sensitive to writing about the Breonna Taylor portrait. I don’t want to lose sight that this is a real person, tragically murdered. Breonna Taylor existed. She has family and friends. This is raw. I’m not writing about a still life or landscape or make believe mythological or religious picture.

This is a person. A person whose individual tragedy – one she took no part in bringing upon herself – has cast her into a global spotlight.

At the same time, the object is a painting, not a person. I can’t claim to know Breonna Taylor through it. I can claim an experience through the object inspired by the person.

That experience tells me to do something. I hope you will too.

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