The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, and the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, have jointly acquired Amy Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor, originally created for the cover of Vanity Fair.
Taylor was asleep in bed on March 13, 2020, when police officers forced their way into her apartment and fatally shot the 26-year-old emergency medical technician. Her death became a rallying cry in the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation last year.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Vanity Fair’s guest editor for a special edition on activism in September 2020, had tapped Sherald to paint Taylor for the issue’s cover. It was the artist’s second commission, after painting the official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama.
Sherald says it was important that the painting go to a public collection, and that it have a presence in Taylor’s hometown of Louisville while also reaching a wider audience.
The cover of Vanity Fair‘s September 2020 issue, featuring a portrait of Breonna Taylor by Amy Sherald. Courtesy of Vanity Fair.
The work was acquired with a $1 million joint donation from the Ford Foundation and the Hearthland Foundation, a new nonprofit run by actress Kate Capshaw and her husband Steven Spielberg. Sherald, who personally orchestrated the sale, will use the proceeds to fund a program she is forming to support students interested in social justice pursue higher education.
The painting will be shown in the Speed’s forthcoming exhibition on Breonna Taylor, “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” opening April 7.
“The killing of Breonna Taylor and a year of protests have really changed the course of Louisville, and we’re struggling,” Stephen Reily, the Speed’s director, told the New York Times. “Our goal and ambition is to use the work of great artists to help process what we’ve been through and collectively find a way forward.”
Curated by Allison Glenn, an associate curator at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, the show will feature work by artists including Sam Gilliam, Lorna Simpson, Kerry James Marshall, and Glenn Ligon. Sherald, Theaster Gates, and Hank Willis Thomas are part of an advisory panel for the exhibition, which was organized in consultation with Taylor’s family.
Sherald’s portrait of Taylor marked the first time the artist had painted a subject who was no longer living. The artist spoke with Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, to get a sense of her character, and used photographs of Taylor’s belongings, taken by Latoya Ruby Frazier for Vanity Fair, as references—including one of the ring that Taylor’s boyfriend intended to propose with.
Because Taylor liked to dress up, Sherald painted her in a flowing crepe gown, designed for the painting by Jasmine Elder, founder of JIBRI, an Atlanta-based fashion label for plus-size women. With Taylor’s family’s permission, Sherald painted her wearing the engagement ring she never received.
“I made this portrait for her family,” Sherald told Vanity Fair at the time. “Producing this image keeps Breonna alive forever.
“Promise, Witness, Remembrance” is on view at the Speed Art Museum, 2035 South Third Street, Louisville, Kentucky, April 7–June 6, 2021.
“Amy Sherald: The Great American Fact” is on view at Hauser & Wirth, 901 East 3rd Street, Los Angeles, California, March 20–June 6, 2021.
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