What do you think of the official portraits of former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama that have just been unveiled? If you haven’t seen them yet, take a little time to check them out and think about them, and then we’ll talk.
The Obamas interviewed more than two dozen artists for the distinction of painting their portraits. (Michelle says this is the first portrait she’s ever sat for.) The paintings will be displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, but not side by side; the former President’s portrait will hang, appropriately, in the hall of presidents, while Michelle’s will hang in another gallery. Both paintings are stunningly different from typical “power portraits,” and, considering that President Obama’s portrait will be viewed in the context of those of other Presidents, that incongruence will be much more obvious in his case than in hers.
Considering that President Obama’s artist, Kehinde Wiley, is an African-American noted for making a statement about power by painting his black subjects in the high-blown style of the Old Masters, this painting seems, well, a little strange. Here, the artist has taken the opposite tack. It’s ironic that in a situation in which a black person in real life has reached the absolute highest level of power attainable by anyone of any race, this artist conveys not a hint of it. Obama is sitting on a “throne” of sorts (a low, carved chair), alone against a blanket of brilliant green ivy –- the purpose of which is “charting his path on Earth,” according to the artist –- that completely fills the canvas, behind him and under his feet. The ivy is studded here and there with pops of colorful and symbolic flowers. It certainly incorporates the President’s Hawaiian roots; he could be wearing a crown of plumeria blossoms in this picture and it wouldn’t seem out of place with his business-casual clothes. Maybe it’s casual Friday, and the office is having a tiki party.
As for the pose and grim expression, I’ll leave it to Internet trolls to create the memes we all know are coming. I feel like staying above that today. (Well, not really, but I’m going to restrain myself.)
Why does the President look so grim? I’d like to think it’s because of Neil Gorsuch being on the Supreme Court or his certainty that the scale of Hillary’s lawbreaking and the Justice Department’s protection of her –-- and, by extension, him –- will eventually see the light of day. When it does, that daylight will be just as bright as the sun that shines on his visage in this beautifully-executed but odd portrait of him.
Now, a word about Michelle’s portrait. This is a striking work of art, created by Amy Sherald of Baltimore. Like Wiley, she’s an African artist dedicated to highlighting themes of social justice; that’s one reason she typically de-emphasizes skin tones by painting them in gray, as she has done here. The look is flat and mural-like. Against a background of sky blue, Michelle poses thoughtfully in a dramatic white full-skirted dress enhanced with graphic designs. Not formal-looking, but sophisticated.
One tiny quibble, and maybe it’s just me: Objectively, I suppose it’s a good facial likeness, but if I saw the painting and hadn’t been told it was her, I might not immediately realize that. I might just pass by as one sometimes does with an acquaintance on the street, if that acquaintance looks like a lot of other people. Maybe seeing her portrait up-close-and-in-person, the face would appear less generic. We should all get to the Smithsonian Picture Gallery and have a look at this and other history-making works.