Barack and Michelle Obama, Two Portraits

In the spring of 2015 we presented two posts about the art of portraiture, Portraits in the Age of Selfies and I’m Not Whom I Seem: Fictitious Portraits. I was thinking about these posts when I read that the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery had just announced the names of the artists who will create official portraits of the Obamas.

In thinking about what these portraits may look like I am reminded of what I wrote about the nature of portraiture:

Why create a portrait in the first place? Is it to leave behind a mark on the world in the form of an image that will outlast one’s life? Is it part of an important historical record? A commemoration? A form of communication? And what does it capture? A real likeness or an essence? A possible persona that differs from reality? Is it a reflection of the person portrayed or of the maker of the image?

When I think of a presidential portrait I imagine an unadventurous painting that does little to reveal the uniqueness of the person portrayed. The importance lies in the stature of the person, not in the quality of the art work itself. Based on the two artists chosen to create portraits of the Obamas I think we may find something different this time.

Kehinde Wiley has been selected to paint President Obama and Amy Sherald will paint First Lady Michelle Obama. Kehinde Wiley is a well-known portraitist, whereas Amy Sherald is a relative newcomer. What they both have in common is that they are African-American artists who investigate ideas of race and power in their work. In addition, both have a highly individualized style of painting that is outside of the forms used in past presidential portraits.

The Obamas were presented with the portfolios of approximately twenty artists who were pre-selected by the curators of the Portrait Gallery. Apparently Wiley had been an early contender but Sherald was added at the last minute after winning the prestigious Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition grand prize put on by the National Portrait Gallery, the first woman to win the prize.

remake of historic oil painting by Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley “Officer of the Hussars”

I wrote about Kehinde Wiley in August, 2015 and you can read that post by clicking on the highlighted text. Wiley is known for artworks that recast Old Master paintings, replacing white men of power with young black men from the streets, thus giving them the respect and prestige that society denies. Many works use elaborate patterning that invades the pictorial space and references other cultures and times. He has also painted non-historical works that include female and male figures, all of whom are people of color.

oil painting portrait by Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley “Shantavi Beale ll

Receiving the commission to paint President Obama is a dream come true for Wiley. Since 2008, when Obama first became president, Wiley has expressed his interest in making such a portrait. In 2012 he reiterated his interest, admitting that he had already completed several studies and that “The reality of Barack Obama being the president of the United States—quite possibly the most powerful nation in the world—means that the image of power is completely new for an entire generation of not only black American kids, but every population group in this nation.

stained glass by Kehinde Wiley

Stained Glass – “Saint Ursula and the Virgin Martyrs.” On left is the original created in 1535, on right by Kehinde Wiley

Writing in the New York Times, critic Roberta Smith raises an interesting question about the potential of Wiley’s painting, “Mr. Wiley’s flamboyant portraits of men, in particular, give them a worldly power and often a gravitas that they don’t necessarily possess in real life. That is part of his work’s irreverent, perspective-altering force. It will be fascinating to see if Mr. Wiley rises to the occasion of painting a world leader like former President Obama, who already has a big place in history and plenty of dignity.

painted portrait by Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald  “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance)”

Unlike Wiley’s images of grandeur, Amy Sherald paints African-Americans engaged in everyday activities. Her usual working method is to discover people on the street and invite them be the subject of a painting. She hand-selects their wardrobe, either from clothing she has found or from their own closet. You could say she decides who they will be and how they will be seen.

painted portrait by Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald “Equilibrium”

Sherald paints the ordinary, and finds grace in simple gestures. Painting Michelle Obama should present an interesting challenge – finding the common humanity seen in her previous artwork, while recognizing the political power and importance of the First Lady. Of Michelle Obama Sherald has said, “She’s an archetype that a lot of women can relate to — no matter shape, size, race or color. We see our best selves in her.”

painted portrait by Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald “Innocent You, Innocent Me”

Sherald employs a striking painting style that juxtaposes flat areas of vibrant color with gray scale renderings of the subject’s skin. The formal aspects of the work – shape, color, line, texture – are as important as the subject matter. At the same time, according to the critic Roberta Smith, the use of a range of grays for the skin “recalls old photographs but mainly gives the figures a slight remove from the rest of the painting, one that also signals their awareness of the obstacles to their full participation in American life. This simple device introduces the notion of double consciousness, the phrase coined by W.E.B. DuBois to describe the condition of anyone living with social and economic inequality.

The two portraits by Wiley and Sherald will be completed in early 2018. I eagerly await the unveiling.

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