On Monday, the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley and Baltimore artist Amy Sherald were selected to do the portraits of the former POTUS and FLOTUS, respectively.
Barack Obama’s portrait drew instant raves. Michelle’s, though, caused a bit more conversation.
Many viewers liked what Sherald was trying to do by painting Michelle in gray tones—she says the use of gray allows her to “subversively comment about race without feeling as though I’m excluding the viewer”—but felt that the portrait didn’t resemble the former First Lady very much.
Holland Cotter, art critic for the New York Times, said Mrs. Obama’s portrait face was too far removed from the real one:
To be honest, I was anticipating—hoping for—a bolder, more incisive image of the strong-voiced person I imagine this former first lady to be.
This gets at the central tension of the art of the portrait. Just how much should a portrait be about physical likeness, versus conveying psychological truth, or an insight into character? The furor over Michelle Obama’s portrait suggests we want a portrait to deliver the first above all else.
But as the Daily Beast points out, people are complaining that the painting isn’t enough like a photograph. The spirit that Mrs. Obama represented to so many seems lacking in the more restrained, removed spirit of Sherald’s work. But the public face of Michelle Obama isn’t the only face. Sherald is arguably trying to show us another face:
We live in such a literal culture and such a visual culture, a world of selfies and relentless photographic capture, there are howls when an official portrait simply does not do the same job. There is an exasperation with painting that it has done what it has always done—taken artistic liberty, sought to burrow behind the photograph’s surface—instead of simply doing what a photograph does, which is to render the familiar even more familiar.
Former President Obama introduced his portrait, and noted that he attempted to persuade Wiley to use a bit of artistic license with his portrait:
I tried to negotiate less gray hair. I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well.
The flowers seen in the background of the former president’s portrait do have symbolic meanings. The chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago, where he began his political career. His childhood home of Hawaii is represented through jasmine, and African blue lilies serve as a nod to his late Kenyan-born father, Barack Obama, Sr.
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