Barrack and Michelle Obama's portraits revealed at National Portrait Gallery

Violet Powell
February 14, 2018

Former US President Obama said his portrait by Kehinde Wiley, who is known for his Old Master-style depiction of African-Americans, was "pretty sharp". He is the first African American to create a presidential portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. As Media Matters and Upworthy's Parker Molloy first noted yesterday, the far-right has latched on to a pair of Wiley's paintings in which he depicts the biblical story of Judith beheading Holofernes-a frequent subject in Renaissance art-as a black woman holding the head of a white man or a white woman. He was hyper-visible and yet always partly hidden. Realistic renderings are also seen as a bit retardataire in some corners, so Sherald's painting may be deemed out of step with contemporary art fixations. She focuses on African-Americans and renders them with great psychological intimacy.

"The shape of the dress, rising pyramidally upward, mountain-like, feels as if it were the real subject of the portrait".

The nation's first black president was not depicted in common presidential spaces, but instead, he is nearly engulfed by nature.

Michelle Obama's likeness will hang at the gallery until November this year.

Smith's sketch of her dress for Michelle Obama. Michelle Obama's portrait, painted by a different artist than her husband's, was revealed during the ceremony as well. "My approach to portraiture is conceptual", she said.

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Cillizza: How important is it for a portrait to look like the person being portrayed? And my guess is that Mrs. Obama is a beloved figure throughout much of the art world, and Sherald's painting will benefit from that sentiment.

Valerie Mercer, curator of African American art at the DIA says she isn't concerned with the facial detail on Sherald's painting because art is about an artist's impression of reality. His work, Obama said, like our democracy, "is not simply celebrating the high and the mighty and expecting that the country unfolds from the top down, but rather that it comes from the bottom up".

Reflecting to the audience, Michelle Obama admitted to feeling "a little overwhelmed" by occasion. This is a different Michelle, a woman evacuated of celebrity, who appears provisionally dreamlike, almost a shadow.

The challenge, then, for Wiley - and for Sherald - was that neither subject was ordinary. In this way, Sherald wondrously troubles assumptions about blackness and representation in portraiture. Generally, presidential portraits are characterized by muted tones, conservative images of former presidents standing in the oval office. Both Wiley and Sherald's work reflect the evolution of the American narrative, as mirrored in Obama's historical presidency. She was exhorted, by worriers of all races, to be soft. It is undeniable that there was a shift in how she was marketed. A coworker noted that Michelle's portrait didn't look like it belonged next to Barack's. She is distinct from all the other First Ladies to come before her. If this is who Mrs. Obama thought could best communicate her legacy, what do we think she's trying to say? Michelle Obama's mom Marian Robinson and her brother Craig Robinson were also in attendance. It is an intensely private work of art that will seem otherworldly in whichever state gallery hall it is hung. The portraits will be available for public viewing starting Tuesday. An earlier victor of the same contest that Sherald won in 2016 made his portraits by digitally scanning his subjects as they lay on a table.

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