The Obamas’ Official Portraits Are a Profound Rethinking of What State Portraiture Should Look Like

Image via Getty.

During a Monday morning ceremony, Barack and Michelle Obama
unveiled their official portraits at the National Portrait
Gallery. The large-scale portrait of Barack Obama was painted
by Kehinde Wiley, an artist best known for his updated,
grand-scale history paintings that re-envision both the genre
and its subjects; he adapts and refocuses the visual language
of an old revered genre of European painting for both anonymous
and famous black men. The large-scale portrait of Michelle
Obama was painted by
Amy Sherald
, a Baltimore-based artist whose elegant
portraits typically depict black sitters rendered in the style
of flat modernism.

Today’s unveiling was a historic one that fundamentally changed
the image of a state portrait in the United States: Both Wiley
and Sherald are the
first black artists
to paint presidential portraits for the
Smithsonian, just as the Obamas are the first black subjects to
be rendered with such historic permanence. Michelle Obama
remarked on the significance of the moment, saying that she was
“thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls and
girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place and
they will look up and they will see an image of someone who
looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American

But if representation itself is a radical visual shift, then
the paintings are also momentous and important departures from
standard state portraiture. Both Wiley and Sherman’s paintings
slyly wink at the genre but play with its standards. Wiley’s
style is well-suited for this historic moment, taking as he so
often does, a visual language that overwhelmingly features
white subjects and refocusing the genre’s sense of heroism and
authority to the lives of black men and women. In Wiley’s work,
black people become saints and gods, their lives are imbued
with the mythical proportions of history and granted the
romantic narratives that form the history of European painting.

Image via Getty.

Wiley’s gesture is fundamentally profound, and it is repeated
in his portrait of Barack Obama. Here, Obama sits in a state
chair, marking his tenure as president, arms crossed across his
knees, framed by a background of green leaves, variated in
color, and punctuated by bright flowers. The chair on which
Obama sits is a standard object in state portraiture— both
Bushes appear with
in their
official portraits
—but in Wiley’s hands, it bypasses recent
history, instead conjuring up George Washington in Gilbert
Stuart’s famous
Landsdown Portrait
, as well as the numerous
portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte where that authoritative chair

repetitively appears

Wiley seems to suggest
emergence—the creation of a new kind of naturalism that
references the historic nature of Barack Obama’s

The chair is the only object of state that lingers in Wiley’s
portrait. He has replaced the other signifiers (columns, draped
cloths, paperwork/legislation, and bookshelves are common
trappings of the genre) of the state portrait with a floral
setting that is simultaneously natural and stylized. The
background is typical of Wiley, he often sets his large-scale
figures on almost decorative backgrounds, enhancing the
sitter’s size and grandeur. But here, Wiley seems to suggest
emergence—the creation of a new kind of naturalism that, no
doubt, references the historic nature of Barack Obama’s

As with Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama, Sherald’s portrait of
Michelle Obama is also a play on the standard state portrait.
Michelle Obama appears, hand under chin, in an elegant gown
detailed with modernist grid patterns. The patterns reference
Sherald’s style—defined as it is by bold lines and flat
proportions set on a minimalist, blue background. As with the
portrait of Barack, Michelle is depicted in large-scale, a
reference again not just to the importance of the sitter, but
to the historic significance that she represents.

Image via Getty.

Long after Michelle Obama
is gone the painting will still insist on her

The painting surely makes a statement about Michelle Obama—her
grace and fashionability—but Sherald’s composition makes a
statement about history. Michelle’s gown naturally composes the
base of a triangle, her head its peak. The geometric
composition isn’t particularly unusual but, like Wiley’s
painting of Barack, Sherald references the style of the old
masters. Given the context of the sitter, however, the figure
looks mountainous; the former First Lady is larger than life,
and her presence in the National Portrait Gallery—the reason
the very painting exists—is an immense cultural and historical
shift. Sherald’s painting nods towards posterity, ensuring that
the signification of the sitter will be remembered; long after
Michelle Obama is gone the painting will still insist on her

Taken together, Wiley and Sherald’s paintings pay homage to
their respective genres, while stylistically and visually
acknowledging the historic significance of their sitters. State
portraiture is a uniquely unforgiving task, but Wiley and
Sherald both have navigated the demands with truly compelling

Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama will be installed long-term on
the National Portrait Gallery’s second floor, where he will
keep the company of previous presidents. Sherald’s portrait of
Michelle Obama will hang in a separate gallery dedicated to new
acquisitions until November.

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