When looking at the presidential portraits held by the National Portrait Gallery, the gaze is immediately caught by its two newest additions. On Monday the twelfth, Michelle and Barack Obama unveiled their official portraits as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s 50th anniversary.
Stylistically, the Obamas’ portraits mark a huge divergence from portraits of presidents’ past. Traditionally, presidential portraits allow their subject to be the focal point, featuring them against bare or State House-esque backgrounds. The artists for the Obama portraits, however, took a different approach, choosing to use vibrant and selective color placement and abstract expression.
Michelle’s portrait, painted by Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, depicts the former first lady in greyscale against a light blue background. The subdued color palette is a trademark of Sherald’s— what color is used in the portrait comes in the form of detailing on Michelle’s dress, which some say are similar to that of African textiles. Some interpret Michelle’s depiction in greyscale as a nod to the issue of race; although race was pivotal to the importance of Obama’s presidency, a lack of color in the portrait allows it to be taken out of the equation.
Use of color is much more blatant in Barack’s portrait, which sets him against a bold background of green foliage. Kehinde Wiley, the architect of the piece, essentially takes the former President out of the State House, demonstrating that the significance of the Obama administration is cultural as much as it is political. However, a political statement is made in the piece; Wiley chooses to represent the significance of Obama’s heritage, embedding him in a bouquet of African blue lillies, jasmine symbolic of Hawaii, and chrysanthemums in reference to Chicago.
That being said, both portraits include details that make a political statement centered around race. However, the importance of race in both the Obama presidency and its commemoration is more visible behind the scenes of the portraits. Both Wiley and Sherald are renowned for their focus on African-American subjects, with Sherald choosing to portrait them exclusively.
The racial component of the pieces was both celebrated and criticized once artist choices became public. Notably, Wiley came under fire for some of his past work, which has depicted African-American women depicting white women. The two pieces of this nature, a duo entitled “Judith Beheading Holofornes,” are in reference to the classical Book of Judith.