Obamas Honored in Presidential Portrait


On Monday, February 12, former President Obama spoke at the unveiling of the presidential portraits at National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian. The canvases depict both Michelle and Barack Obama wearing calm expressions, not without an air of pride and determination, but in bold and vivid color – artistic styles never before seen in the very classical history of presidential portraits.

Kehinde Wiley, Obama’s choice for his portrait artist, depicts Obama sitting, surrounded by an almost overwhelming array of lush green foliage. If one takes a closer look, they can spot beautifully painted flowers amongst the green. African blue lilies for Kenya, Barack’s father’s birthplace and jasmine for Hawaii, Barack’s birthplace. It also pictures chrysanthemums, which are the official flower of Chicago, the city where his political career began, and where he first met Michelle. Wiley’s studio states that,“by applying the visual vocabulary and conventions of glorification, history, wealth and prestige to the subject matter drawn from the urban fabric, the subjects and stylistic references for his paintings are juxtaposed inversions of each other, forcing ambiguity and provocative perplexity to pervade his imagery.”

Barack, himself, spoke of how he admired that Wiley’s works “challenge our conventional views of power and privilege.” This portrait was one such challenge. “Wiley typically portrays people of color posing as famous figures in Western art,” the Portrait Gallery writes. “Through this practice, he challenges the visual rhetoric of power that is dominated by elite white men.”

Michelle’s portrait was done by the lesser known, but not less-talented Baltimore-based Amy Sherald. Only recently rising to fame, Sherald’s art uses a combination of relevant topics, everyday African Americans and vibrant color. Her figures are often painted in a gray skin tone, as a “way of challenging the concept of color-as-race,” the National Museum of Women in the Arts claims.

The dress Michelle is portrayed in was inspired by a piece in Michelle Smith’s Spring 2017 Milly collection, reportedly containing a hidden political message. Smith told The Washington Post that for the season’s collection, she drew inspiration from the, “desire for equality, equality in human rights, racial equality, LGBTQ equality.” Details, like lacing and ties, which were a recurring theme in Smith’s collection, were intended to incite a “feeling of being held back . . . that we’re not quite there yet.”

Michelle delighted in the portrait, saying, “I’m thinking about young people, particularly . . . girls of color who will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them on the wall.” The best praise, however, came from the former president himself, who thanked Sherald for capturing his wife’s “grace, beauty, charm and hotness.” Always well said, Mr. Obama.

Regardless of anyone’s personal biases surrounding the former president and the politics associated with him, there are a few things about these portraits one has to recognize. They are the first portraits of a president and first lady of color created by the first two artists of color to be selected. And still, the artists went a step further, and challenged the traditional depiction of presidents by creating works that spoke to the true history and personalities of the couple, rather than painting in a classically realistic but reserved portrait style.

Wiley’s painting of former President Obama is permanently installed in the America’s Presidents exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution. Sherald’s painting of Michelle Obama will be on display until November in the museum’s Recent Acquisitions section.

On a final, and admittedly biased note, to those angered by the Obamas’ breaking of tradition and to critics who may claim that the portraits do not accurately portray the couple, I will leave you with some words from Aristotle: “The aim of Art is to present not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance; for this, not the external manner and detail, constitutes true reality.”