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Timelessly Empowering: The Obama Portraits

Portrait of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald

The unveiling of the Obama portraits at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery last month stirred up a public response almost as extravagant as the portraits themselves. Beautifully atypical of traditional presidential portraits that past Commanders-in-Chief have had commissioned, the portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama are stand-alone in their styles. Barack and Michelle Obama’s portraits were painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively. The pair are the first African-American artists to paint presidential portraits that now hang in the National Portrait Gallery, and both artists are renowned in their celebration of black subjects illustrated in their works.

Kehinde Wiley is a contemporary artist known for his paintings of black people that challenge traditional precedents, especially notions of power and privilege. His portraits often feature wallpaper-like backgrounds and are rife with symbolism. Wiley’s work is successful in depicting common black people and “elevating” them to a level of power and prestige, thus questioning and criticizing established assumptions regarding class and race in American society. At the presidential portrait reveal last month, former President Obama spoke of the artist’s technique and explained why he was so intrigued by it: “I was always struck by… the way that he would take extraordinary care and precision and vision in recognizing the beauty and the grace and the dignity of people who are so often invisible in our lives and put them on a grand stage on a grand scale and force us to look and see them in ways that, so often, they were not.”

Obama’s portrait is remarkably unlike most of the other portraits on display in the National Portrait Gallery; the former President is sitting down amidst a backdrop of lush greenery, eye-catching and brightly colored. Wiley clarified some aspects of the painting’s lavish background upon its unveiling; he included chrysanthemum flowers to represent Chicago, to which Obama owes his political roots, as well as flowers that symbolize Hawaii, his birthplace, and Kenya, his father’s birthplace.

In planning the portrait, Obama and Wiley decided to take a boldly unconventional route. While many argue against the painting’s stark stylistic contrast to the other forty-two portraits besides which it is displayed, Obama’s portrait reflects the entirely original perspective that he brought into the White House during his eight-year term as the country’s first black president. The deviation from the traditional office or library backdrops that many of the other presidents decided upon for their portraits is a direct testimony to Obama’s challenge toward conventionality upon his election in 2008—a beautiful, progressive challenge at that.

Amy Sherald, another African American contemporary artist, painted Michelle Obama’s portrait. Sherald is known for her grayscale portraits of black subjects accented by brightly colored clothing, accessories, and backgrounds. While the former First Lady’s portrait favors a solid sky-blue background over the fanciful greenery of her husband’s, Sherald’s painting offers a unique style in the geometric patterns found on Obama’s dress that allude to both the artistic talents of painters like Piet Mondrian and to black culture, specifically that of a black community in Alabama known for quilt-making.

Sherald set out to encapsulate the grace and poise that Michelle Obama presented during her time as First Lady and continues to present today. Though her portrait is perhaps less realistic than past portraits that have found their homes in the National Portrait Gallery, Obama’s countenance absolutely depicts the intellect and strength for which she is so well known. As the former First Lady stated on an Instagram post regarding the portrait, the painting is a source of inspiration and empowerment for “so many young girls and young girls of color who don’t often see their images displayed in beautiful and iconic ways.”

In the month since they have been put on display, the Obama portraits have been met with much controversy and questioning. While it is true that the newest pair of paintings showcased at the National Portrait Gallery defy conventional practices put into many of the others in the presidential portrait collection, the works of Wiley and Sherald also reflect the incredible originality in perspective that the Obamas brought to the White House and to the United States after the 2008 election. The portraits are also especially refreshing in their ability to convey politics and minority representation in a wholly artistic and symbolic way that will remain emblematic for many years to come. The unconventionality of the portraits represents progression, deliberately challenging the repetitiveness of past presidential portraits in a wondrously empowering manner.

PC: Amy Sherald/ Wikimedia Commons

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