Monday morning, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. unveiled the official portraits of former POTUS and FLOTUS, Barack and Michelle Obama. The two paintings were commissioned as one of President Obama’s last acts in the White House and the couple picked some pretty incredible artists.
Barack’s portrait was painted by New York City artist Kehinde Wiley who is known for painting African-American subjects in heroic poses amid naturalistic environments. In fact, the flowery Madonna-esque Beyonce pregnancy announcement was rumoured to be influenced by Wiley’s style. The portrait depicts the former president seated in a wooden chair in front of a leafy background that includes flowers symbolic of each of the places Obama has lived.
Michelle’s portrait was done by Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald for whom this is her first foray into majorly public art. Sherald is known for painting in greyscale in order to “subversively comment about race without feeling as though [she’s] excluding the viewer.” Michelle’s portrait is created in her customary style, so the First Lady is depicted with grey skin.
Simmie Knox became the first African-American to paint an official presidential portrait when he was commissioned to paint Bill Clinton. Wiley and Sherald are the first African-American artists to receive the honor of painting presidential portraits for the National Portrait Gallery. At the unveiling, the Obamas talked about how they hope for the portraits and their painters to inspire young people of colour for generations.
“[I’m] thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall,” Michelle said, “I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.”
“What I was always struck by when I saw [Wiley’s] portraits was the degree to which they challenged our ideas of power and privilege,” Barack said. He also talked about the similarities between Wiley’s childhood and his own — both had absent African fathers and were raised by American mothers.
“I ended up writing about that journey and channeling it into the work that I did because I cannot paint,” Obama joked.
Most of the reaction to the portraits was wildly positive.
These official portraits of @BarackObama and @MichelleObama are stunning. Congratulations to @kehindewiley on becoming the first person of color to paint a presidential portrait that will hang in the @nationalportraitgallery. pic.twitter.com/iuZwoJGMP4
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) February 12, 2018
Can we talk about how stunningly powerful it is to see a black man in a garden the way Kehinde Wiley painted Barack Obama?!
It dismantles so much and creates new visions of masculinity that black men rarely have the public permission to explore. pic.twitter.com/pwycHtbbDX
— Brittany Packnett (@MsPackyetti) February 12, 2018
And Amy Sherald has OUR Michelle looking so divinely royal in garb others wouldn’t deem so.
This is a reenvisioning of excellence for black girls everywhere-for everyone of us, and every one who couldn’t understand us. pic.twitter.com/Zmnq7pO7LK
— Brittany Packnett (@MsPackyetti) February 12, 2018
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) February 12, 2018
They’re incredible. I miss them so. https://t.co/8CVg2EOz3K
— christine teigen (@chrissyteigen) February 12, 2018
The Obamas so cool and graceful. Their successor defending spousal abusers. So stark.
— John Legend (@johnlegend) February 12, 2018
A few people had some jokes when it came to Obama’s portrait because while it may depict him looking strong, stoic and downright regal, it also reminds a lot of people of some memes. Most notably: Sean Spicer hiding from reporters in the bushes and Homer Simpson basically doing the same thing.
— KT NELSON (@KrangTNelson) February 12, 2018
— Shoshana Weissmann, Sloth Committee Chair (@senatorshoshana) February 12, 2018
There was also some negative reaction to Michelle’s portrait by those unfamiliar with Sherald’s work. They were confused about the monochromatic portrait and some thought that the rendering didn’t look like the First Lady at all.
Michelle Obama is an elegant lady and the portrait looks nice. But clearly, the artist drew someone else. pic.twitter.com/659jRDHY33
— Eugene Gu, MD (@eugenegu) February 12, 2018
Ugh…does not do a powerful, beautiful woman justice
— OuisieM (@OuisieM) February 12, 2018
I LOVE LOVE LOVE Barack Obama’s portrait, but I don’t think Michelle’s does her true beauty justice. https://t.co/BnosH1MMYt
— Marika Shaub (@marikatogo) February 12, 2018
Am I the only one who thinks that Michelle’s portrait doesn’t look like her? Art is hard. https://t.co/VHraLn4aT7
— Gayle Trotter (@gayletrotter) February 12, 2018
Other Twitter users countered that the portrait may not look exactly like Michelle, but it captures her essence, power, beauty and all she stands for perfectly.
Yes Amy Sherald’s Michelle portrait doesn’t look exactly like her. So what? It’s not a photo. It’s Amy’s style and the overall sense of the painting conveys the essence of Michelle—graceful, lovely, elegant, beautiful.
— Touré (@Toure) February 12, 2018
To you people who are really confident with your “this doesn’t look like her” shit: Sit down. Close your eyes. Think about Michelle Obama. Now think about what Michelle Obama represents. Now think about the embodied essence of “Michelle Obama.” Now open your eyes. Here she is.
— Bess Kalb (@bessbell) February 12, 2018
At the very least, Barack thinks it captures his wife. He said in his speech, “Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love.”
Barack Obama praises Michelle Obama’s portrait artist “for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love.” https://t.co/31IsuBQpNp pic.twitter.com/7tkznasSaA
— ABC News (@ABC) February 12, 2018
Seriously, how much do we miss the Obamas?