I like the Obama portraits

Marie Harrington
February 14, 2018

Barack and Michelle Obama revealed their presidential portraits for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery on February 12, and while much of the focus was of course on the former president's - a colorful portrayal of Obama in the foreground of a floral motif by Kehinde Wiley - a handful of covert messages are hidden in the former first lady's portrait. If Wiley's impulse was to elevate his subjects, how would he depict the most powerful of people?

In remarks from Smithsonian's Secretary David Skorton, he reiterated the broad goal of portraiture as an art form: "Presidential portraits have a particular power to capture the public imagination, to move people to think about America's leaders and indeed American society itself in new and unexpected ways".

Toledo's work was more rarefied, reflecting Obama's elevation to unique circumstances. The use of gray is a political statement of sorts for Sherald, in which she discards the assigned "color" of African-American subjects. "I dressed Mrs.Obama on several occasions while she was in office, and am so grateful to create something that she will forever be remembered in by future generations", Smith says through a spokesperson to Yahoo Lifestyle.

Sherald, like the former president, spoke highly of Michelle Obama, describing her as "a human being with integrity, intelligence, confidence and compassion". She focuses on African-Americans and renders them with great psychological intimacy. "I knew I wanted something that was colorful, something that had a bold kind of pattern on it". She was the first one to hug the Queen of England, she was featured in a Carpool Karaoke with Missy Elliott, she was black. "It's not really a representation of her".

Former First Lady Michelle Obama and artist Amy Sherald unveil Mrs. Obama's portrait at the Smithsonian's National Portrait
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Sherald says the gown, which was designed by Milly, "has a connection to the art canon, but it also speaks to black culture". Sherald compared it to "the inspired quilt masterpieces made by the women of Gee's Bend", which she explains is "a small remote black community in Alabama where they compose quilts in geometries that transform clothes and fabric remnants into masterpieces".

Wiley, an established artist whose work is held by prominent museums worldwide, has produced a characteristically flat, nearly polished surface, with intensely rich colors and a busy, sumptuous background that recalls his interest in portraiture. But a stroll through the National Portrait Gallery emphasizes that fact in a visual and emotional way that recalls not just the racism built into this country's founding document, but the racism that has shaped the history of art and portraiture since the Renaissance.

But ultimately, it presents something new. "But most of all, I am so incredibly grateful to all the people who came before me in this journey". Far from it. Of the scores of paintings the artist has produced, only the two based on the biblical beheading story depict such a scene.

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