The official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled on Monday, February 12, 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. Described as a pair of rising stars, New York’s Kehinde Wiley and Baltimore’s Amy Sherald, were commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to paint the official portraits of the former President and First Lady. Both artists have focused their careers on painting portraits of African-Americans. Wiley obtained his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and his MFA from Yale University School of Art in 2001. He has gained recent acclaim for his heroic portraits which address the image and status of young African-American men in contemporary culture. Sherald received her BFA from Clark-Atlanta University in 1997 and a MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004. In 2016, Sherald became the first woman to win the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition grand prize.
These very contemporary portraits have been met with mixed reviews from the public. On social media Barack’s portrait has been described: “Regal, modern, happy in the green life-giving composition!” Some have wished Barack was standing. Other comments include, “Love the classy, modern style... but feel that neither painting captured their essence.” Many have felt that Michelle is more regal than this portrait portrays and Barack has been painted too rigid. Michelle’s grey skin tone in Sherald’s portrait has been mentioned numerous times, many feeling it makes the portrait flat.
When asked at the unveiling, Barack Obama said his portrait by Wiley was "pretty sharp." Michele Obama simply said "Wow!" to describe her painting by Sherald. Barack went on to say about the artist chosen for his commission, “What I was always struck by whenever I saw Wiley’s portraits was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege.” Which is an interesting comment when you think Obama’s legacy in many ways has been about the nature of his power and how he chose to wield it. Perhaps the look on Barack’s face in the portrait has to do with the fact that ultimately, he was powerless to make radical, concrete change.
In his portrait painting Barack is looking serious, but vaguely amused with a slight curl in his mouth, sitting in a delicately detailed wooden chair against a backdrop of bright leaves and vivid flowers. In Vinson Cunningham’s article in The New Yorker he describes Obama as relatable and goes on to say: “The feet of the chair disappear into the brush, resting, one assumes, on a soft, unseen bed of soil. But the bottoms of Obama’s shiny black shoes simply float. The gesture poses questions that seem equally applicable to the meanings of portraitist and President. Is this … a momentary slippage or a new stability? … Obama’s truest political gift, perhaps, was the ability to let a thousand flowers of expectation, born of history, bloom. The flora in the portrait represent the stations of Obama’s scattered personal and ancestral past—blue lilies for Kenya; jasmine for Hawaii; chrysanthemums for Chicago—and their momentary intrusions might hint at the ways in which the man was somewhat shrouded by the dazzling story that delivered him into his nation’s arms.”1
The New Yorker also published a companion article by Doreen St. Félix who talks about Michele Obama’s portrait. St. Félix describes the evidence of power as being more elusive in Sherald’s work in general as compared to Wiley’s. Sherald typically uses backdrops of monochrome color where her figures quietly emerge like ghosts. The concept behind Sherald’s work is to “exclude the idea of color as race, a quality determined by others’ eyes, externally—is a dead end.” St. Félix goes on to say, “…the first black First Lady in an abundant gown, designed by one of her favorites, Michelle Smith for Milly. Smith, in an interview with Vogue, has said that the dress’s ‘clean, minimal geometric print’ is ‘without a reference to anything past or nostalgic’ and is ‘forward-thinking,’ like Obama herself. Sherald said that the shapes reminded her of the diligent quilt-making of the black women artisans of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Obama sits against sky-blue oblivion, the triangular shape of the dress turning her into a mountain."2
1. Vinson Cunningham, The Shifting Perspective in Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of Barack Obama, The New Yorker, February 13, 2018
2. Doreen St. Félix, The Mystery of Amy Sherald’s Portrait of Michelle Obama, The New Yorker, February 13, 2018
About the Author
Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, and published writer, specializing in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She organizes annual art excursions to Russia every summer and is the editor of Musings-on-art.org.