Art Concepts: Negative Space in paintings by Jacques-Louis David and Kehinde Wiley

We're going to look at two paintings titled Monsieur Seriziat: at left by Jacques-Louis David, painted in 1795, and at right by Kehinde Wiley, painted in 2012.

Jacques-Louis David's painting of Monsieur Seriziat is a portrait of David's sister-in-law's husband, and it gives the impression that this is a man of comfortable wealth, as he is seen sitting with his horse-riding equipment. Monsieur Seriziat is seen outside, with a cloud-filled atmospheric background, simple in its detail, allowing the viewer to focus on the subject. Scroll down to read more...

paintings by Jacques-Louis David and Kehinde Wiley

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What exactly is negative space, and how does David use it? Negative space, in art, is the space around and between the subject of an image, and in David's case, since Monsieur Seriziat is nearly centered within the canvas, the negative space around him is relatively balanced, and the contrast of his black jacket with the white clouds allows for an easy perception of the figure in front of the background.

Kehinde Wiley is clearly using David's painting as a starting point, as is obvious by the use of the same title as well as having his subject in a similar pose. But beyond that, Wiley is turning David's artistic approach upside-down in several ways. We have a series of essential questions below, to help you really look at these two paintings and see what exactly Kehinde Wiley is doing with his version of Monsieur Seriziat.


1. What is the first, and perhaps most-obvious difference between these two Monsieur Seriziats?

2. How would you describe the difference in backgrounds?

3. If you look closely, would you really call Wiley's background a true "background?"

4. How would you describe the differences in negative space between the two paintings?

5. Let your eye drift to the center of each canvas ... how are they different?

Scroll down to read our thoughts on these essential questions...

OUR INTERPRETATIONS: (for the above-questions; note that we don't say "answers" - we are providing our own viewpoint in response to the questions raised)

1. Wiley is taking traditional European portraits as a starting point, but is replacing the aristocratic white males with black men whom he finds by a method he calls "street casting," where he walks the streets of a particular area and tries to find someone who has the "look" that he wants to paint. He finds subjects who contrasts the well-dressed art historical figures with casually dressed attire, in this case, a man with flip flops, jeans and a t-shirt.

2. Wiley has removed the subject from a specific location and has inserted them into a decorative, flat background. The way he paints the figure shows a sense of space, light, and realism, but he utilizes baroque and rococo decorative patterns to flatten out the background.

3. While the colored aspect of Wiley's background is a flat background, the decorative patterns in this case lie both behind, in front, and on top of the subject. Note how the vines and leaves come up out of the background and surround the subject, especially around the lower half of his body.

4. Wiley's figure is not centered like David's, so the balance of the picture shifts, with heavier negative space on the left and the gaze upon the subject pushed over to the right. Combined with the vine-like decorative elements that come to the foreground, it disrupts the sense of balance in several ways.

5. The center of David's canvas is the man's chest, and is the central point between the man's hat and his crossed legs. The center of Wiley's painting, however, is negative space - it's an open space that doesn't exist in David's painting. We show you a detail of this space, below left, as well as the negative space created under the crossed leg.

showing negative space in a painting

Lastly, we're going to accent the differences in composition and negative space in these two paintings by using a trick that is referred to as "figure-ground organization," in which we separate elements based upon contrast, utilizing black and white. By making the background "black," we flip the eye's tendency to read the black shape as the "figure," and it allows us to better read how exactly the negative space is formed in these two paintings. It also depends on whether you see the white or black color as the figure (forefront) or the ground (background) ... there's the potential to interpret the picture as two different images based on your perception of the shapes.

EXTRA CREDIT ASSIGNMENT: Find other paintings and isolate the figure and background, making them black and white, and see what you come up with, see if you can transform the look of a famous painting by seeing it in negative.

figure ground organization