Presidential Portraits

Why the Obama Paintings are a Significant Milestone for Presidential Portraiture

(Obama White House / Flickr)

(Photos taken from The New York Times)

The official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were revealed on Feb. 12 at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. The first couple commissioned African-American artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, to produce their official portraits. This is the very first time that a first couple has appointed African-American artists to paint their official portraits, according to Time Magazine.

Artist for Former President Barack Obama: Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley , a New York-based painter, is known for creating intricate works of art that elevate and celebrate black masculinity and spirituality. He often uses everyday subjects that he sees on the street in his portrait paintings. The subjects are portrayed in a heroic manner that illustrates them in positions of power and spirituality. These positions of power replicate those of white men who are illustrated in traditional, regal works of art. Wiley re-stages the subject based off of these historical figures.

(“Clevins Browne,” 2013)               

(“Anthony of Padua,” 2013)

When working with Obama, Wiley used art history books to study the body language and backdrops of the portraits of historical figures. The book was used to help Obama discover what elements he would like Wiley to use in his official portrait.

Rather than portraying Obama in a traditional scene, Wiley chose to paint the former president seated among a colorful and ornate backdrop of flowers. Instead of elevating his subject to a position of power, Wiley chose to represent Obama’s personal story through the piece. Each of the flowers represents a place that is significant to the former president. The jasmine flowers represent Obama’s birthplace of Hawaii, the African blue lilies represent Obama’s father’s birthplace of Kenya, and the chrysanthemums represent Chicago which is said to be the birthplace of Obama’s political career, according to NPR news.

Artist for Former First Lady Michelle Obama: Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald, a Baltimore-based artist, went in a different direction with the former first lady’s official portrait.

Sherald's portrait paintings often address issues of social justice and critical views of African-American culture and history. She uses grayscale for painting skin tones as a way of going against the idea of color-as-race while surrounding her subjects with color.

(“What’s different about Alice is that she has the most incisive way of telling the truth,” 2017)  

(“Try on dreams until I find one that fits me. They all fit me,” 2017)

For Michelle’s portrait, Sherald wanted to portray the former first lady as “a woman that exists in a way that she is 100 percent relatable to all kinds of people, all genders, all around the world.”

Michelle and Sherald worked together to choose a dress from a variety of options. They decided on a gown designed by Michelle Smith for Milly. The dress is a white gown featuring a pattern that reflects the art of Piet Mondrian, a dutch painter known for his abstract art.

Sherald shares that the gown also shares a connection to black culture. The pattern on the gown is reminiscent of the quilts made by black women in Gee Bend, Alabama.

In an era where the black community and other minority groups are suffering from hateful acts on a day to day basis, the Obama’s decision to choose black artists is significant and impactful. These portraits speak volumes for the possibilities that the future holds for marginalized groups in the US today.