Arts & CultureVisual Art

Portraits of former president and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama spark new discussions about their legacies

Artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald unveiled their elaborate attempts to represent the legacies of Mr. and Mrs. Obama at Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. on Feb. 12.

The portraits have received mixed reviews to say the least. According to University of Oregon art history professor James Harper, experts in his department have similarly wide-ranging opinions about the portraits.

Wiley’s portrait of Mr. Obama depicts the president sitting confidently before a background of plants representing flora of Hawaii, Kenya and Chicago. It’s a busy background, and Obama looks as if he is being consumed by the intricately-painted plants behind him. His expression is focused and alert, but his slightly furrowed brow makes him look concerned. The portrayal of Obama is representative of how he looks today.

“When I looked at [Mr.] Obama’s portrait, it felt sort of sinister,” Harper said. “It’s like when things are new and fresh and then they start to decay and ivy creeps in. I thought that he looks kind of overgrown and a little bit forgotten. My next thought was that it’s almost a metaphor for the republican congress.”

Harper said his perceived metaphor could not have been Wiley’s intention, but the suggestion remains. Harper said it’s important for people to know that these portraits are ultimately a collaboration between the Obamas and the artists. He was surprised by his first impression, because it didn’t align with how he thought the former president would want to be remembered.

Sherald’s portrait of Mrs. Obama starkly contrasts Mr. Obama’s portrait, clearly not intending to  paint a perfectly accurate likeness of the first lady. Her skin tone is close to graphite and there are only a few precise facial details. But she looks regal and beautiful. There’s an mesmerizing tension between Mrs. Obama’s royal expression, posture and gown and the modern art imagery on the gown itself. The juxtaposition seems to say: “American queenliness has a new poster child.”

“The best portraits mix the fact of the person with an idea,” Harper said addressing the criticisms that Mrs. Obama’s portrait doesn’t look like her. “A portrait that’s just: ‘here’s what you look like’ without an idea is going to be dull. [Mrs. Obama’s] is a monument. It’s a pyramid composition, but it looks much more strong and stable than a pyramid. It’s authoritative.”

It makes sense that responses to the portraits of the first Black president and first lady, whose time in office was so wrought with political and social polarization, would be varied.

The one constant from journalists and critics of these paintings is the claim that the portraits break the mold of all others that came before. The 43 presidential portraits in the National Portrait Gallery seem preoccupied with displaying power and pride in a one-dimensional way, except those of Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy who were portrayed in more abstract forms.

The Obama portraits have been a catalyst that has gotten the nation talking about how we are going to remember the 44th president and first lady in a new and necessary way.

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Max Egener

Max Egener

Max Egener is an Arts & Culture writer for the Daily Emerald. He covers documentaries, food and science and is currently pursuing a master's degree in journalism.