How the new Obama paintings from Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald revitalize the stale power of the portrait.
The official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama are in — and they aren’t quite like anything else in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
Official presidential portraits tend to focus heavily on their subjects’ dignity: The presidents stand tall in tailored suits, gazing out into posterity. (Elaine de Kooning’s JFK and Chuck Close’s Bill Clinton are notable exceptions.) And official portraits of former first ladies tend to be idealized and domestic.
But the Obamas chose two of the hottest young artists in portraiture for their official paintings, and it shows.
Portraiture got thrown into the wastebasket of the middlebrow after the abstract expressionists came calling in the middle of the 20th century: It’s often talked about as a stale, outdated medium, one that both insists on narrow ideas of photorealism and imagines a stable, quantifiable identity for the subject. How gauche! But portraiture has been quietly resurfacing as a living and vital visual art form in the 21st century — especially among artists of color, who have found fertile ground in reimagining the portraits of the Western canon for nonwhite bodies.
That’s how Kehinde Wiley, the painter behind Barack Obama’s portrait, made his name. Wiley’s most famous paintings place black bodies in the heroic poses of some of the most famous portraits in the Western canon: Michael Jackson as King Philip II, Ice T as Napoleon, unknown and unrecognizable black men as Chancellor Pierre Séguier and his retinue.
“The whole conversation of my work has to do with power and who has it,” Wiley told Vanity Fair in 2006 — and by placing black bodies (mostly black men, although he’s begun to incorporate women into his work) in poses historically designed to demonstrate wealth, strength, and opulence, Wiley is redistributing the aesthetic power of art.
With his Obama portrait, Wiley moves away from a literal reimagining of a specific painting. Obama’s chair bears a certain resemblance to the chair in Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portrait of George Washington, as Holland Cotter pointed out at the New York Times, and his hunched-over, thoughtful pose echoes the lines of Rodin’s Thinker. But the forceful, engaged expression is specific to Obama, and so is the iconography around him (the blue flowers are for Kenya, the jasmine for Hawaii, and the chrysanthemums for Chicago, per Cotter). It has the aesthetic effect of a baroque portrait, but all the signifiers are vital and original.
They’re also as much about Wiley as they are Obama. The vines and flowers behind Obama represent his background, but they’re also characteristic of Wiley’s work, which tends to feature a forcefully posing human subject in front of an organic, richly textured, color-saturated background. Wiley thinks of the resulting tension as fundamental to his work, as he told the New York Times in 2015: “For me the landscape is the irrational. Nature is the woman. Nature is the black, the brown, the other.” He added, “That’s the logic behind it, but everyone has their own sort of reading.”
Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait, is less of a brand name than Wiley (her career was briefly delayed first by family illnesses and then by her own heart transplant), but she’s also a vital part of the new reclamation of portraiture for black artists.
“It came naturally to paint people that looked like me, but then I also recognized that the art history books that I looked up weren’t culturally relevant,” she said in 2016. “I basically paint people who I want to see exist in the world, but then I also want to creative [sic] a narrative that’s extricated from a dominant historical narrative.”
Sherman, who won the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2016, tends to paint black subjects, usually in grayscale in front of a color-saturated background, in clothes she chooses carefully for each subject. The gray skin lets Sherald “omit” skin color from her paintings entirely, she says, separating race from color and allowing her subjects to hover in the liminal space between reality and dreamworld.
In the portrait, Michelle Obama reclines against a gray-tinted blue background, in what looks like a nod to the time she shook the 2012 Democratic National Convention by showing up with blue-gray nails. (Her nails are blue in this portrait too.) She’s wearing a geometric printed gown by Milly, which, ArtNet says, is meant to evoke the geometric quilts made by the black artists of the remote Alabama community Gee’s Bend.
The former first lady’s gaze is steady and direct, her hair loose around her face, and her pose is framed by her bare arms. It’s not a cheesecake pose, but it’s embodied and physical in a way that’s unusual for this kind of portrait; you get why her husband thanked Sherald for capturing Michelle Obama’s grace, beauty, intelligence, and charm — and also her hotness.
Paired together, the two portraits are immensely striking: Not only are they both unusually active for this kind of portrait, but they give off a palpable sense of intelligence, directness, and — perhaps more than anything else — cool. They’re portraits whose subjects care about aesthetics, who are thoughtful about the history of portraiture, and who have the personal charisma to carry the weight of that history on themselves.
Which is important, because history is going to weigh heavily on the portraits of the first black president and first lady, painted by the first black artists commissioned to make the official presidential portraits.
“I’m also thinking of all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who ... will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution,” Michelle Obama said as the portraits were unveiled. “I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls.”
Or, as Kehinde Wiley put it years ago: “Andy Warhol said that we would all have our fifteen minutes. Fuck the fifteen minutes. I’m going to give you a painting, and I’ll make you live forever.”