While the portrait was widely acclaimed, praise was not universal. Some felt the figure looked too much like actor Kerry Washington, star of T.V.’s Scandal. Others wondered about the First Lady’s gray en grisaille skin tone, a common motif in Sherald’s work.
“It's like there's a history of portraiture. But I'm not in it when it comes to painting. Photography was the only place that I saw images that I could really connect to myself. So, when the camera was invented, there was a way for us to begin to tell our own stories. So my work has really become a meditation on photography in that way. It wasn't the reason why I rendered the skin tone en grisaille, but there is definitely a connection there. In the beginning, it was aesthetic, but as I've progressed in the work, I realized that it was because I didn't want the work to be marginalized. I wanted the figures to exist in a more universal way.”
A Baltimore gal, Sherald received her MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004. Her career began to take flight with The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today, a group show at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in which she won the prestigious Outwin Boochever Portrait prize. She is the first woman to do so.
“I didn't grow up around the arts. I didn't go to a museum until I was in the fifth grade. And then I didn't go to another museum after that ‘till I was in college. So, this work is what really lives inside of me. And I feel like it chose me. I really didn't choose it. But if nobody likes what I make, then I would still have to make this because this is my story.”