The Washington Post
Portrait takes its place in tradition of goodwill
In February 2018, when Barack and Michelle Obama came to Washington to unveil their official portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, the crowd gathered felt like a government in exile. The massive courtyard of the Old Patent Office Building wasn’t just teeming with out-of-work Democrats, it was filled with people increasingly concerned about the erasure of legacy. And the legacy was more than just the policies, treaties and laws passed under the Obama administration. It was the legacy of representative democracy that felt at threat.
When the paintings were unveiled, their bright colors and whimsy made the crowd sentimental. The former president had chosen Kehinde Wiley to paint his image, and Wiley responded with his trademark mix of formal portraiture and baroque profusions of decoration. Amy Sherald made an image of Michelle Obama that captured her in a pensive mood, in a dress that felt a bit like a defensive screen, containing her vulnerabilities safely in a geometric carapace of fabric and muted color.
On Wednesday, two new official portraits of the Obamas were unveiled at the White House, commissioned by the White House Historical Society to join a gallery of paintings of presidents and first ladies dating back to the monumental Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart, which presided over the festivities in the East Room. No longer a government in exile, the crowd was full of former Obama and current Biden officials, a who’s who of Democratic power politics. When the Obamas entered, and when they were praised in the speeches, the roar was deafening. A cynic would say this was just a standard Washington partisan event, but it may turn out that the ceremony was more meaningful than the images unveiled.
The new portraits are more traditional than the ones commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery. The former president was painted by Robert McCurdy, an artist who specializes in photographic realism, making images in which the subjects are standing alone against a white background, illuminated by harsh lighting. The style is based on stripping away anything extraneous, any distracting detail, to get to what the artist believes is the unfiltered truth of the subject.
Obama wears a dark suit, white shirt and gray or silver tie. The effect is almost monochromatic. Mccurdy tells his subjects not to smile or gesture, and Obama complied. The effect is to tell us almost nothing about the man, beyond the salient fact that he must have wanted to tell us nothing about himself. Mccurdy has painted powerful and famous people, almost always in exactly the same way. The underlying idea seems to be borrowed from an aesthetic popular in contemporary theater: Get rid of the sets and the costumes and the props and focus only on the text and the actors, and that will give you the real truth of the play.
The portrait of Michelle Obama, by
New York artist Sharon Sprung, is softer, more colorful and relaxed. The former first lady sits on a richly upholstered red sofa, in a light blue dress, the folds and sway of which offer a sense of motion in contrast to the composure of her face and body. Her expression is about as inscrutable as that of her husband’s, but the effect is more accessible. In McCurdy’s portrait, Barack Obama is girded for a test of wits; in Sprung’s portrait of Michelle Obama, the first lady is above the fray. The striking color of the background in Sprung’s painting suggests something autumnal, the color of forest leaves at the height of autumn, or the golden glow of the sun after a thunderstorm moves across the horizon at sunset.
The earlier portraits commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery have taken on talismanic power among people who admire the Obamas. They have gone on tour, so far to Chicago, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, San Francisco and, now, Boston. I eavesdropped on people visiting them in Los Angeles, and the tone was decidedly nostalgic: for a bygone age of civility, for democracy still guided by norms, protocol and decorum. Portraits are an old-fashioned medium, and thus an ideal vehicle for embodying old-fashioned ideas about how the republic should work.
The new portraits are strikingly more conservative. By choosing Wiley and Sherald, the Obamas highlighted the work of two African American artists with substantial careers in the contemporary art world. More traditional portrait artists stand to the side of that milieu, a bit suspect because the medium is so old, so dependent on traditional craft and skill, and often intimately connected to the world of finance and power. Traditional portraits are commissioned by politicians, corporations, universities and other public bodies, and those artists often work under significant pressure not just to render a good likeness, but also to create an object that fits the aesthetic of where it will hang — the boardroom, the judicial chamber, the halls of Congress or academe.
So, context matters, and the Obamas, in their choice of McCurdy and Sprung, found artists who could make work that will hang comfortably beside the other portraits in the White House. These images will never have quite the same public life as the ones commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, but that isn’t really the role they were meant to play. This is about filling in two gaps in a chain of images since the founding of the nation. This is about continuity.
Ultimately, the celebration Wednesday, with all its forced jokes and exaggerated bonhomie, will probably matter more than the images themselves. There are billions of images of the Obamas floating around the internet, and these paintings won’t change anyone’s perception of the former president and his wife. But there is something important about each new president consenting to live with images of his or her predecessor. President Donald Trump, who should have hosted the Obama portrait unveiling years ago, refused to have the couple — or their likenesses — in the White House, an act of erasure and contempt that prefigured his far more public snub of President Biden when he refused to attend his inauguration.
Things were festive Wednesday, as one would expect when a president hosts a predecessor he once served as vice president. The greater test of these events is when the celebrants come from different parties, when they have perhaps faced off in heated and volatile elections. The forced joke, the performative smiles, the manic displays of hospitality may seem false. But they are essential to democracy. We fake a little goodwill to keep things from going off the rails. In portraiture, we strive to put our best face to the world. In ceremonies like Wednesday’s unveiling, we do exactly the same thing.