The Dallas Morning News
ART: With portraits, the Obamas make history again
Compelling works from significant painters are unlike any others in National Portrait Gallery
The U.S. was rather late in establishing a National Portrait Gallery — and in creating the conditions for commissioning official portraits of presidents and first ladies. Sadly, the gallery’s able staff has little to do with the selection of artists or even with the framing of the portraits.
So, it is not often that the unveiling of an official painting of a president and first lady would attract the attention of a regional art critic. Most of them are by competent and utterly unimportant portrait painters for whom the contemporary art scene holds no interest. That changed Monday with the unveiling of the official portraits of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
The Obamas elected to each choose a different painter, thus breaking the tradition of commissioning official portraits from one — always white and always male — artist.
But nothing is typical about the Obamas and nothing is typical about their portraits. The Obamas selected artists of African descent, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, and each selected an artist of their same gender. (Sherald is the first female artist of race in the history of official presidential portraits.)
The Obamas’ portraits are by artists widely recognized in the art world — a far cry from the conventional painters favored by earlier presidents and their wives.
We in North Texas know Wiley well; a large retrospective organized by the Brooklyn Museum made a stop at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, where he demonstrated the art of empowerment by portraying ordinary AfricanAmericans dressed as wealthy rappers and pop stars against jazzy, colorful backgrounds.
By giving his subjects the royal treatment, Wiley glories in the beauty of contemporary black life juxtaposed with the trappings of traditionally white art history.
Sherald’s aesthetic is as “cool” as Wiley’s is “hot,” and her visual solution to the representation of black skin is to render it in varying shades of gray. Younger and less wellknown than Wiley, she has shaped a career in Baltimore that has been given a real boost by Michelle Obama, in a manner familiar to fashionistas who often learned about young American dress designers when the first lady wore their creations.
Wiley is the colorist and represents Barack Obama seated in an early 19th-century American mahogany chair, his body hunched forward, elbows on his thighs, his hands relaxed, but his posture and face alert, as if ready to rise. The president’s skin is a range of browns, the orange tint of which is intensified by the chromatic interplay with the fresh bright green of the foliage.
The figure is considerably larger than life, and, if he was to stand up, would not fit on the painting’s surface. This combination of enlargement and compression gives the figure a sense of power and confidence. Obama looks at the viewer with an intense directness. Wiley gives him not even a hint of the familiar smile.
The remarkable aspect of the portrait is its leafy background, which is as visually engaging as the figure. Wiley represents a wide variety of leaf shapes, indicating that this is not a vine, but a composite of different leaves, from which grow equally variable flowers. Many of these are symbolic — the blue flower of Kenya, a flower from Hawaii and another from Chicago.
The level of detail in the painting is almost exhausting for the careful viewer and gives the picture a dose of the nervous intensity exhibited by Obama himself.
Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama is the opposite of Wiley’s portrait. Its format is more square, and the surfaces so smooth that one has little sense of the painter’s own gestures. Sherald lets the coolness of the baby-boy blue background create the atmosphere for the painting. Michelle is gray, rather than brown, and that too intensifies the coolness and abstractness of the painting.
She is seated, but without visual support. It is almost as if her colorful, full-length patterned dress supports her. The dress calls attention to itself, forcing us to ask who designed it. The answer is a small company called Milly and its founder and chief designer, Michelle Smith. Fashionistas will know the name, but few of Dallas’ grande dames would likely be aware of this dress, which costs around $400.
What is remarkable about the portrait is the sober seriousness of the first lady. The perpetually smiling, athletic Michelle Obama is represented as arrested in thought. The wonderful rubbery arms have their origins in the famous 19th-century female portraits of the French master Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, particularly those of his portrait of the Comtesse d’Haussonville in the Frick Collection.
Sherald will have none of the sly smile of Leonardo’s
Mona Lisa, and Michelle looks out at us with inexpressive dark eyes and with closed lips untouched by lipstick. Is this the Michelle Obama we know and love — of the White House vegetable garden, exercise for kids, late-night dancing at inaugural balls and an almost explosive sense of life and fun? Decidedly not. Sherald gives us a Michelle Obama less for now than for the ages, as a queen without a crown, gazing at her future viewers with calm assurance.
The portraits are decidedly unlike the staid official likenesses of their predecessors, George W. and Laura Bush — and indeed, unlike any others to hang in the National Portrait Gallery. They represent two powerful and important individuals against invented backdrops with little suggestion of place.
They call out for us to reconsider Michelle and Barack Obama not as powerful figures, but as individuals in American society.
Rick Brettell is the founding director of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at the University of Texas at Dallas and a former director of the Dallas Museum of Art.