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Obama portraits, in setting and style, reflect first couple’s love for contemporary design

The artworks by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald reflect how the Obamas have championed diverse, modern art

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama stand next to their newly unveiled portraits during a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, on February 12, 2018 in Washington, DC
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The official portraits of former president and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama look very little like the portraits of other former White House residents. The paintings, recently unveiled, speak greatly to the choices that the first couple made to modernize and diversify the residence’s art and design while in office.

It’s notable that the Obamas have veered from the representational style of other presidential portraits, where the subjects are standing or sitting in rooms meant to evoke the interior of the White House. In fact, until the Obamas moved in, the White House’s art collection looked almost exclusively like those presidential portraits: historic figures or romantic landscapes, classically rendered.

The Old Family Dining Room of the White House in 2015, with art by Robert Rauschenberg and Alma Thomas, and a wool rug designed by Anni Albers.
Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon

In collaboration with designer Michael Smith, Obamas added an exceptional number of contemporary artists to the White House art collection, including works by Mark Rothko, Ed Ruscha, and Robert Rauschenberg. “There was discussion about the president and first lady liking more abstract art,” White House art curator William Allman told the New York Times in 2015. “Our collection doesn’t really have any of that.”

As announced last year, when the portraits were commissioned, this is first time that any former president and first lady have been painted by black artists: Baltimore-based Amy Sherald captured the former first lady, and the president was painted by New York City-based Kehinde Wiley.

While in the White House, the Obamas also opted to include art from contemporary black artists like Alma Thomas (the first African American female artist represented in the White House), William H. Johnson, and Glenn Ligon.

Like those additions to the White House collection, the Obamas have made a conscious decision to ensure these portraits are more conceptual and more personal, exuding texture, color, and individual style.

Much of Wiley’s work, lushly rendered portraits of black celebrities and ordinary African Americans, incorporates natural or whimsical elements, and references the grand, formal staging of classical portraiture. So it isn’t surprising to see Barack Obama seated against a lush, leafy green backdrop. But the flowers that curl around his chair and legs are also significant: Chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago, there’s jasmine for Hawaii, and African blue lilies denote his father’s Kenyan roots.

The chair on which Barack Obama sits is the only traditional element of the entire painting, a piece of furniture which would not look out of place among the White House’s decor. This chair has some similarities to a set of mahogany chairs made for the East Room in 1817 by Georgetown furniture maker William King, Jr., but it’s not an exact match.

Sherald’s work is a bit more abstract. In fact, Michelle Obama’s face and dress, rendered in geometric grayscale, nearly recede into the sky blue background. As Vox notes, Sherald specifically alters the skin tones of her subjects to “subversively comment about race without feeling as though I’m excluding the viewer.”

While first lady, Michelle Obama was known for championing independent American designers. Consider the stunning red gown by designer Jason Wu that she wore to the inauguration balls in 2008, which basically launched his career. Here she’s wearing a gown by Milly, which does nod to the accessible fashion choices Michelle Obama made while in the White House, but is designed by the very established Michelle Smith.

However, the real story here is the pattern, which bears a striking resemblance to the famous quilts made by African-American women in Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

Sherald confirmed as much during her speech at the unveiling:

The dress chosen for this painting was designed by Milly. It has an abstract pattern that reminded me of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian’s geometric paintings. But Milly’s design also resembles the inspired quilt masterpieces made by the women of Gee’s Bend, a small remote black community in Alabama where they compose quilts in geometries that transform clothes and fabric remnants into masterpieces.

50 years ago, the National Portrait Gallery began acquiring portraits of the commanders-in-chief as part of its “America’s Presidents” exhibition, which is the “only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House.” Although the collection has thousands of artworks, including the famous Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington, it is only in recent years that the National Portrait Gallery has started commissioning its own presidential portraits, starting with George H.W. Bush. The museum began also commissioning the portraits of first ladies starting with Hillary Clinton.

As the New York Times reports, although Barack Obama’s portrait has a dedicated space in a recently renovated Smithsonian wing along with the other ex-presidents, there’s no permanent spot for Michelle Obama’s portrait. For the time being, it will hang in an area for new acquisitions through November.