Normally, the unveiling of a former US president’s portrait would pass relatively unnoticed in both the world of politics and art. In the past, the commissioned additions to the collection of presidential portraits have been so undistinguished that the event has become little more than ceremonial routine. This year’s installation is markedly different, for two reasons. Firstly, the Obamas are the first African-American presidential couple to be enshrined. Secondly, the painters picked to portray them — Kehinde Wiley for Mr Obama and Amy Sherald for Mrs Obama — are also African-American. In addition, Wiley is the first openly LGBTQ+ artist to create an official presidential portrait for the Smithsonian Institute.
According to the New York Times, “Mr Wiley painted Mr Obama not as a self-assured, standard-issue bureaucrat, but as an alert and troubled thinker. Ms Sherald’s image of Mrs Obama overemphasizes an element of couturial spectacle, but also projects a rock-solid cool.”
— Good Morning America (@GMA) February 13, 2018
The National Portrait Gallery collection was created by an Act of Congress in 1962 and opened to the public in 1968. It is the only place outside the White House that has a complete collection of presidential portraits, from George Washington to Barack Obama. The collection of First Lady portraits is still incomplete – the commissioning of new ones started only in 2006.
‘Uninflected’ dignity was the attitude of choice for well over a century, with only a few breaks from tradition, such as the Obama portraits. These departures from the norm include:
- In an 1836 portrait, Andrew Jackson, a demonstrative bully, sports a floor-length, red-silk-lined Dracula cloak and a kind of topiary bouffant hairstyle
- Gilbert Stuart’s so-called “Lansdowne Portrait” of George Washington, dating from 1796, is a full-length likeness packed with executive paraphernalia: papers to be signed, multiple quill pens, a sword and an Imperial Roman-style chair
- The 42nd president, Bill Clinton, was painted by Chuck Close in the artist’s signature mosaic-like painting technique. Many felt it made the former president look like a pixelated clown.
????. Retweet this so ALL of your friends see the comparison of Obama's portrait to previous Presidents! ? pic.twitter.com/pUbzdRBOds
— Oliver McGee PhD MBA (@OliverMcGee) February 13, 2018
At about seven feet tall, the scale of the Barak Obama portrait is imposing. The artist presents Mr Obama dressed in the regulation black suit and an open-necked white shirt, seated on a vaguely throne-like chair not that different from the chair in Stuart’s Washington portrait. Mr Obama sits tensely forward, frowning, elbows on his knees, arms crossed, as if listening hard. No smiles, no Mr Nice Guy. He is still troubleshooting, still in the game. He is ensconced in flowers that have symbolic meaning: the African blue lilies represent Kenya, jasmine represents his birthplace, Hawaii, and chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago, where his political career began and where he met his wife.
“To call this experience humbling would be an understatement,” the former president wrote on Instagram. “Thanks to Kehinde and Amy, generations of Americans — and young people from all around the world — will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this country through a new lens. They’ll walk out of that museum with a better sense of the America we all love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Inclusive and optimistic.”
Ms Sherald, on the other hand, shows Mrs Obama sitting against a field of light blue, wearing a spreading gown. The design on the dress, by Michelle Smith, is eye-teasingly complicated: It is mostly white, interrupted by black Op Art-like blips and patches of striped colour that is suggestive of African textiles.
As a young girl, even in my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined this moment. Nobody in my family has ever had a portrait – there are no portraits of the Robinsons or the Shields from the South Side of Chicago. This is all a little bit overwhelming, especially when I think about all of the young people who will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this, including so many young girls and young girls of color who don’t often see their images displayed in beautiful and iconic ways. I am so proud to help make that kind of history. But the fact is that none of this would be possible without the extraordinary artist and woman behind this portrait, @asherald. Thank you, Amy – it was a joy to work with you and get to know you.
As gracious as Michele Obama’s reaction was, social media went to war over whether the portrait looked anything like the former First Lady. The verdict varied, but the main theme was that the portrait did not live up to its subject.
Michelle Obama is an elegant lady and the portrait looks nice. But clearly, the artist drew someone else. pic.twitter.com/659jRDHY33
— Eugene Gu, MD (@eugenegu) February 12, 2018
LOVE the new portrait of Michelle Obama pic.twitter.com/c4OXHhFOw6
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) February 12, 2018
While Mr Obama’s portrait will be installed, long term, among those of his peers, Mrs Obama’s will hang in a corridor reserved for temporary displays of new acquisitions, on the first floor of the Smithsonian. It will stay there until November, after which no definite home has yet been selected.