On Monday the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution unveiled the likeness of former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama. Painted by artists Kehinde Wiley for Mr. Obama and Amy Sherald for Mrs. Obama, the two portraits differ greatly from the other former presidents’ portraits and speak immensely with the context of the time in which they were created.
As if being the first African-American president and first family wasn’t enough, the Obama’s decided that they were going to strike the National Portrait Gallery tradition with change as well. Created by an act of Congress in 1962 and open to the public six years later, The National Portrait Gallery isn’t as old as one would think. At the time of collection, most notable portraits had been housed in other places, especially that of the first ladies, a gallery of which has still yet to be completed.
The Obama’s portraits are the newest addition to the collection, breaking the traditional depiction of unchallenged and uninflected dignified ego with a more humanistic approach. Most of the previous presidents’ portraits are self-assured and courtly. From George Washington to Jimmy Carter, the paintings look and feel the same, each with their own slightly personal regalia (Carter traded in the black for a beige suit). Some exceptions to the rule are Reagan and Bush junior’s portraits, both timeless, and perhaps most notably, John F. Kennedy’s portrait, abstract in blue and green messy strokes of paint. The portrait of Obama, then, stands out against history and tradition with them, if only more boldly.
Reclaiming the simple black suit, while disregarding most other common portrait practices of the gallery, Kehinde Wiley paints Barack Obama as an alert and intense listener. He sits forward on his feet with his arms folded across his lap, his face stern without a smile. While most previous presidents remain expressionless, Obama leans forward intensely, as if listening tersely, surrounded in brilliant green leaves and bright flowers. Each flower is something different to his life and his past: chrysanthemums (the official flower of Chicago), Jasmine (of Hawaii, where he spent most of his childhood), and African blue lilies (referring to his late Kenyan father).
Seated in a simple wooden chair, he looks out engaged and insistent. This is contradictory, yet publicly appropriates, his real-world reaction of being detached from world political events in the office. In politics, every depiction of your image is PR, and while this portrait is no exception to that, it creates a more personal reaction. Each flower carries intimate meaning, shrouded in brush and leaves, covering a man with a keen and hard face sitting intently. The former president seems to know and recognize each viewer and hears them, much like he tried to do as the leader of our country.
Michelle Obama’s portrait differs from her husband’s in style and tone, however. Amy Sherald paints the former first lady appears to sit in a long and rigid white dress interrupted by African patterns and colored textiles. Against a plain blue background and black base, the painting shifts between greys and whites and blacks, only slightly broken up by the color on the dress, of which appears to be the center point of the composition. The face on the portrait does not share very many similarities to its likeness, almost generic enough to be any model’s face. Despite these questionable stylistic choices, the painting remains beautiful and glamorous along with her husband’s, and the two shine in history and American culture.
Their artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, often differ in their stylistic and creative choices, though they still have much in common. Wiley and Sherald both focus on early African-American culture due to the lack of portrayal in Western Art and Culture. Amy Sherald tends to dissolve and reduce realism in her work, using grey skin tones for political and racial neutrality with geometric forms for the subjects’ bodies. Whiley, on the other hand, embraces realism, making his subjects photorealistic heroes in a blend of history and fantasy.
Both artists tackle racial politics in their work, and it shows in their portraits of the Obamas. The glamour of Michelle’s painting, despite its flaws, speaks to a generation yearning for representation in our political climate. Barack’s portrait reaffirms his power as a world leader and his attentiveness to the problems and people of his country.
Former President Barack Obama’s portrait will hang with his predecessors’ in a reserved space on the second floor of the National Portrait Gallery. Michelle Obama’s portrait will remain until November hanging in a temporary display of acquisitions.