Though we're hesitant to admit we watch it, there's no denying Empire is having a cultural moment. The Fox television show about a family-run music business has inspired a Cookie Lyon wisdom generator, talks of a concert tour, and even a future Oprah cameo. What has truly stood out, however, is the abundance of art in the Lyons' universe: it's everywhere. From Brooklyn-based Kehinde Wiley's majestic oil paintings (Wiley was recently sucked into his own drama) to Vincent van Gogh masterpieces, to a Klimt Cookie deems "ugly," art is its own character in the show.
We dug through all ten episodes to cull together everything from the fake Basquiats to the miniature Renaissance statues. So without further ado, here's our guide to the art of Empire.
1. Works by Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat's works have always been a popular choice for musicians, including Madonna and Jay Z (the latter even rapped about his love for Basquiat in "Picasso Baby"), so it's no surprise that Lucious Lyon is also a huge fan. A Philistines-inspired neo-expressionist acrylic and crayon work can be spotted in the back, and another work full of his trademark crowns and scribbles lays on an opposing wall. Since Lucious' own narrative of coming from nothing parallels Baquiat's story, it's fitting he's never far from the works when talking business in his personal office.
2. Kehinde Wiley's Le Roi a La Chasse
Kehinde Wiley's Le Roi a La Chasse has a special place in the dining room of Lucious' household. The painting is part of Wiley's Rumors of War series, works inspired by the history of equestrian portraiture. "With heights of over nine feet, the paintings' exaggeration of scale and high-keyed cinematic color highlight Wiley's interest in the aestheticization of power and masculinity," describes his website. With the dining room as the scene for many tense family outbursts, the painting is a reflection of the power struggles that happen under its gaze.
3. Jamea Richmond Evans' Wings Not Meant to Fly
Jamea Richmond Evans' ink, acrylic, and mixed-media collage portrait is a central piece in the living room. The Detroit-born artist holds an MFA in painting from Howard University. Her work is part of a series of autobiographical pieces. "This particular body of work is inspired by the death of my aunt who had an addiction to drugs, and my mother who was addicted to drugs as well," she describes. "The paintings present a very holistic and complex subject that operates in a way that is genuine to the individuals the work is inspired by." Like the strong female characters Cookie and Anika, Evans' art balances the masculine energies of the other works in Lucious' house.
4. Kehinde Wiley's Prince Albert, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria
In Kehinde Wiley's series World Stage, Jamaican men and women proudly pose in the manner of 17th and 18th century British portraiture. This painting first appears in a scene when the viewers see all three brothers who will be vying for control of the empire in the same room. The piece later moves into the living room, serving as a reminder of pride.
5. Gustav Klimt's Hygieia or Medicine
When Cookie first visits Lucious' house, she and the viewers gaze upon this painting, to which Lucious responds, "That's a Klimt." Cookie, in turn, says, "Well, you can keep it. It's ugly." The work is only a piece of a greater mural that was once on the ceiling of the University of Vienna's Great Hall, until May, 1945 when it, along with two other works, Philosophy and Jurisprudence, were destroyed by the SS army. When Klimt unveiled the painting, critics blasted its abstract portrayal of life and death. Hygieia, who was the daughter of the Greek and Roman god of medicine, was associated with continuing good health. With Lucious' diagnosis of ALS, the painting foreshadows Cookie's future role as his caretaker.
6. Kehinde Wiley's Naomi and Her Daughters
Another Wiley work appears during Cookie's first walkthrough of Lucious' house, or rather the tour of the life he built while she was in prison. The work is also part of the World Stage series. The strong mother pictured is especially symbolic of Cookie's character and her upcoming quest to find her place in the family.
7. Michael Savoie's Natural
Part of a series called Blind Ambition, Michael Savoie's acrylic painting Natural is first spotted in the barbershop where Cookie is reunited with Hakeem, her youngest son. According to Beaumont Enterprise, Lee Daniels reached out to lease three of Savoie's artworks to be featured on Empire. "It's a big deal," Savoie told the newspaper. "I'm featured next to some of these artists I admire and studied when I was on my journey of making a name and a brand for myself."
8. Kehinde Wiley's Officer of the Hussars
First spotted when Cookie meets Hakeem in episode one, the painting essentially is the character of Hakeem. Officer of the Hussars is also part of Wiley's Rumors of War equestrian portrait series of subjects sourced mostly from 125th street in Harlem.
9. George Seurat's Can-Can (Le Chahut)
Perched high above the dining room mantle hangs Georges Seurat's pointillist oil painting La Chahut, a work that the artist created a year before his death. The scene he depicted was of the high-kicking can-can dance—thought of as tacky at the time—that was emerging in the lower and middle classes. The viewer's perspective comes from behind the bass player, a metaphor that we're looking upon another kind of can-can happening on our television screens.
10. Claude Monet's House of Parliament
From 1900 to 1905, Monet painted a series of the Palace of Westminster, home to the British Parliament. Each of the works in the series captured the same view at different times and weather conditions. The one that Cookie storms by on her way to warn Lucious of his soon-to-be-fiance's treachery shows the building blanketed in the rose hues of sunset.
11. Vincent van Gogh's Skull with Burning Cigarette
Van Gogh's Skull with Burning Cigarette is an overt symbol of Lucious' struggle with death. After cheating his sons' shares in the company to give them to her, Cookie rebuffs his advances. "You just don't want to die alone," she says.
12. Kehinde Wiley's Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha
While Lucious is taking Hakeem's older girlfriend, Camilla, played by Naomi Campbell, on a tour of the house, she takes note of the art on the walls. "A Kehinde Wiley," she observes. "It would be great if he did a portrait of Hakeem, don't you think?" Wiley's series An Economy of Grace was the first time he painted women, casting from the streets of New York and enlisting Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy to create couture gowns. The woman with her back turned foreshadows Camilla's decision to take Lucious' bribe to leave Hakeem.
13. Andy Warhol
The fusion of Andy Warhol's style with the iconic photograph of Biggie Smalls in a crown resembles the print hanging above Lucious' desk. As Warhol once said, "In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes." And there's no statement that rings more true in the world of the Lyons.
The season ends tonight, so who knows what other art gems will turn up? In the meantime, we'll be busy tallying the artworks' total net value.
The Enduring Power and Beauty of Artist Kehinde Wiley's Representation of Black Men and Women