At Large  February 13, 2018  Chandra Noyes

Obamas' Presidential Portraits Revealed

Photo by Zack Frank, Smithsonian American Art Museum

View of the Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery

Former President Barack Obama and Former First Lady Michelle Obama attended the unveiling of their official portraits at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC this morning. The Obamas stood with the artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively, as the larger-than-life canvasses were revealed.

Wiley’s portrait shows a thoughtful Obama seated in a wooden chair, on a background of lush foliage, clad in his typical dark suit and white dress shirt, without a tie. Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama is in her trademarked style: her skin in greyscale, First Lady is seated against a flat, pale blue background. Mrs. Obama wears a geometric-patterned dress, the only splashes of color in the painting coming from the sparse shapes on her dress.

Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977) is known his sumptuous portraits of contemporary African-Americans painted in traditional heroic poses. His realistically painted subjects in casual clothing stand out against rich, patterned Rococco backgrounds. Wiley has painted celebrities before, including LL Cool J and Michael Jackson, but most often his portraits feature anonymous, average African-Americans, who stand in for the white kings and conquerors that have traditionally been displayed in this style. Through this reversal, Wiley seeks to honor and elevate his subjects in a way that has historically been denied to them. Kehinde Wiley is based in New York and is represented by Sean Kelly Gallery.

Amy Sherald’s (b. 1973) portraiture has a similar aim, as she seeks to examine the identities of the people she portrays in relation to their culture. Sherald’s portraits are often of African-Americans, painted in greyscale, their skin and brightly colored clothing standing out against a background of solid color. Sherald is based in Baltimore and has risen to fame fairly recently, having won the National Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, and recently receiving the Driskell Prize by the High Museum of Art, a prize that honors those making significant contributions to African-American art. Sherald has an upcoming solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, opening in May.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra is Managing Editor for Art & Object.