Here’s Why the Newly Unveiled Obama Portraits Are So Significant

The National Portrait Gallery officially unveiled its commissioned portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama yesterday, February 12, 2018. Renowned artist Kehinde Wiley was chosen by President Obama to paint his portrait, while former First Lady Obama chose emerging artist Amy Sherald.

 

These choices are reflective of the Obamas’ ideals of equity. With black portraiture seldom represented in contemporary art, these portraits are noteworthy beyond their brushstrokes. Just as their subjects made history as the first black President and First Lady, the portraits are also groundbreaking. Wiley and Sherald are the first black artists commissioned for a presidential portrait.

 

The newly-revealed paintings revitalize portraiture, eclipsing the usual humdrum presidential portrait unveilings of the past. Traditionally, past portraits have been muted: brown-toned backgrounds, suit-and-tie, realistic rendering – by the numbers, as it goes. Though there have been some departures along the way (most notably Elaine de Kooning’s portrait of John F. Kennedy), they all fall relatively in-line with what is to be expected of a diplomatic likeness – typically stiff-backed, and often looking away from the viewer. Wiley and Sherald’s portraits depict the Obamas differently – both looking directly at the viewer and leaning forward; approachable, but with expressions of strength on their faces.

 

Kehinde Wiley’s vibrant large-scale paintings typically display African-Americans posing in valiant poses with bold colors displayed in patterned, decorative backgrounds. In Wiley’s depiction, the former President sits intently, as though challenging the notion that presidential portraits belong to white men. With a regal intensity that exhibits power, he is simultaneously embedded in the lush green hues of nature, surrounded by references to his past. Each painted flower holds meaning: chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago; jasmine, a Hawaiian flower; and African blue lilies, for his Kenya father. Obama himself said, when speaking of Wiley’s work, that he was “struck by the way [his works] challenge our conventional views of power and privilege.”

 

Portrait unveiling of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12, 2018. Photo by Pete Souza

 

Amy Sherald’s stylized painting took a different approach to former First Lady Obama’s portrait. There is some ambiguity in her grey skin tone, but there is no mistaking Mrs. Obama’s modernity and self-assuredness. A blanket of soft blue fills in the background, which is countered by the distinct geometric and sharp-lined shapes on her dress.

 

The dress, in some ways, takes center stage in the portrait, but it speaks volumes to Obama’s personality. The “Milly by Michelle Smith” halter dress recalls how Mrs. Obama often wore clothing from accessible, reasonably-priced designers throughout the Obama presidency. Sherald praised Mrs. Obama at the unveiling, saying: “you exist in our minds and our hearts the way that you do because we can see ourselves in you.” As such, the portrait elicits a sense of approachability. Contemporary and feminine, the shape of the dress draws the eye up to the First Lady’s face, which wears a calm but measured expression.

 

In response to the painting, Michelle Obama said: “I’m thinking of all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who years ahead will come to this place and they will look up, and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution. I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.”

 

The National Portrait Gallery, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, houses a large collection of 1,600 portraits, though only began commissioning them with George H.W. Bush. Wiley’s painting will be part of the Gallery’s permanent “American Presidents” collection. Sherald’s portrait of the former First Lady will be on view in museum’s “Recent Acquisitions” corridor through early November 2018.

 

Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is located at 8th St NW & F St NW, Washington, DC.

 


top photos // (left) Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley, oil-on-canvas, 2018; (right) Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama by Amy Sherald, oil-on-linen, 2018.

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