It stands to reason that Andrew Jackson, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, all presidents and infamous slave owners, would have never expected to have their presidential portraits hanging alongside that of a black man’s in the National Gallery. On February 12th, however, history was made as the official portraits of former President and First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama, were unveiled. These paintings were also painted by African-American artists, for the first time ever.
Barack Obama’s gorgeous and unique painting stands out starkly when compared to other presidential portraits that show the presidents either standing or sitting stoically in front of a drab background with palettes of dark blues, reds, blacks, browns and grays. These portraits are the ones that populate textbooks and make previous presidents appear dull and lifeless, especially in contrast to President Obama’s.
Painted by Kehinde Wiley, Barack Obama sits dressed in a suit contemplating the future and reflecting on the past among a sea of green leaves and flowers that represent his background such as chrysanthemum, jasmine and African blue lilies for Chicago, Hawaii and Africa, respectively. Wiley’s painting, while extremely lifelike and realistic, may have been too realistic for Obama who joked that he wished Wiley gave him less gray hairs and smaller ears. He also joked that he had to persuade Wiley, famous for portraying African-American men in situations of power that are typically associated with white men, to not put him on a horse like Napoleon. Obama, on a more serious note, reflected how he appreciated that Wiley’s work "challenge[s] our conventional views of power and privilege." There is hope that this is a new wave of presidential portraits that creatively and artistically portrays their subjects humanity, as well as presidentialness, but that is likely to be short lived.
The former First Lady’s portrait also makes a statement with its artist’s artistic vision. While Fox News astutely pointed out that Michelle’s portrait did not especially look like her, Michelle was thrilled with her portrayal because that’s what she was looking for. Michelle specifically mentioned how thrilled she was that there is a portrait of a black First Lady hanging in the National Gallery and how she hopes it is an inspiration to young black girls who may see themselves in her “archetypal” portrait. Amy Sherald “often paints black skin tones in gray as a way to take away the assigned "color" of her subjects” and stays away from realism. Another example of presidential couple goals, that has been sorely missed since the Obamas departure from the White House, was when Barack Obama thanked Sherald “for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love.”
While the paintings are both equally beautiful in their own way, they will not be equal in their display. Former President Obama’s painting will hang foreseeably forever in the Smithsonian’s National Gallery, but Former First Lady Obama’s painting has a questionable future. It will hang until November in the new acquisition corridor and then be moved to some other location. Holland Cotter, in an article for the New York Times, writes that he believes there should be a permanent shared place for these portraits or at least a reserved place for all the portraits of the First Ladies, and I agree. First Ladies hold a spot in this nation’s history and serve as essential advisors, promoters of charities, and ambassadors to the world while their husbands are in office and should be recognized forever alongside their partners.