The Obama Portraits and the History of African American Portraiture


Like the former President Barack Obama's choice of the painter Kehinde Wiley for his own portrait, it was a demonstration of discriminating taste; these paintings, in the eclectic Smithsonian halls, will relate more easily to Douglas Chandor's study of Franklin D. Roosevelt's upper half and fiddling hands, the atomizing of Bill Clinton by Chuck Close, than to Robert A. Anderson's conservative transcription of George W. Bush. The portrayals ring just as true as those who work within the confines of a more familiar canon.

While some critics complimented Sherald's signature style, which included her trademark "grayscale", others thought Obama's floor-length dress, which was reminiscent of the quilts made by a black community in Alabama, was distracting, or worse - that the former first lady's portrait looked nothing like her. "That's because, as a former president, when you choose an artist to describe your likeness, you have the opportunity to shape, quite literally, how someone sees the office of the American presidency".

I think the portrait is one answer. The flowers ― blue lilies, jasmine and chrysanthemums that pay homage to Kenya, Hawaii and Chicago ― here and there eclipse the former president's form. "Established artists don't need commissions; Mrs. Obama's selection of Sherald, however, will have a major impact on her career right when she needs it".

"We miss the way those who worked with us on this incredible journey carried yourselves and worked so hard to make this country a better place", he said. Smith added: "It's up to Mrs. Obama to say why she chose this for the portrait, but I would say that it's a very modern, emotional dress with a very womanly, very American spirit".

According to the Smithsonian, Sherald is known for capturing "the inner strength of her subjects through a combination of calm expressions and confrontational poses".

On Instagram Michelle proudly posted Sherald's portrait and wrote, "As a young girl, even in my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined this moment". But these portraits will remind future generations how much wish fulfillment was embodied in the Obamas, and how gracefully they bore that burden. "In the first few seconds of our conversation, I knew she was the one for me".

Michelle wore Milly several times while she was First Lady, including during an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and on the cover of Essence magazine with her husband.

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The gown also boasted pockets, a feature a sensible Capricorn like Obama would probably find useful. "Quilting is a huge part of black culture", Sherald says.

Controversy surrounding Kehinde Wiley's wildly non-traditional portrait of the Commander-in-Chief broke out within minutes of its unveiling; with industry insiders claiming the artist secretly inserted his trademark technique-concealing images of sperm within his paintings.

Obama's portrait was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery alongside that of his wife, Michelle Obama.

But ultimately, it presents something new.

Barton Girdwood produced the broadcast version of this story.

The former president was painted in a suit - without a tie - against a background of leaves and flowers on the edge of a wooden chair, and the former FLOTUS looked lovely in a flowy dress with geometric patterns and a halter neckline.