The cover of Vanity Fair magazine’s September 2020 issue is a triumph. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet portrait of Breonna Taylor by the artist Amy Sherald. The issue is guest-edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates and includes a feature article edited by him in conversation with Taylor’s mother.
Taylor was in the news again recently in the aftermath of the George Floyd police shooting and Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. She too was killed at the hands of police. But her murder happened earlier in the year before the Floyd killing, and initially didn’t receive as much attention from the media at the time.
Taylor’s death was a tragedy and a crime, arguably all the more infuriating for its senselessness. She was killed by gunfire while in bed in her home during a nighttime “no-knock” raid by plain-clothes police who had mistakenly identified her residence as that of a crime suspect that was actually 10 miles away.
The portrait by Sherald is a powerful image. Sherald, an established artist, who has been painting portraits for two decades, rose to prominence after painting First Lady Michelle Obama’s official portrait. She was the first African-American woman artist to paint the portrait of a First Lady. (There’s also an article in issue about Sherald’s process of making Taylor’s portrait.)
The Vanity Fair cover is bold and striking. Taylor appears dignified and confident in, staring back at the viewer with softly defiant eyes. The Vanity Fair cover is a notable departure from the magazine’s established style. First, the cover is a painting instead a photo. The VF covers are usually photos of A-List celebrities and the political and cultural elite. Taylor, now post-humous famous due to Floyd and the BLM, was not a celebrity when she was killed. She is now a potent symbol, and with the VF cover and her story, perhaps even more so.