Obama Portraits Drawing <br>Thousands of Visitors <br>To National Portrait Gallery

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Call it a sign of the times, painted by hand. It seems the new portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama have nigh blown the roof off the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

Traffic at the museum soared over President’s Day weekend to more than 50,000, the museum tells me. That’s thrice last year’s traffic over the same weekend. Lines stretched into the street.

This may stem from what Artnet.com calls the “staggering buzz” around the two portraits. It turns out the first major portraits of the former president and first lady are breathtaking departures from the standard presidential paintings. The artists were chosen by the Obamas themselves.

The painting of Michelle Obama — by Amy Sherald — is dominated by an elegant white gown flowing toward the viewer. The former first lady is leaning back, receding into a pale blue background. Ms. Sherald is famous for meticulously painted portraits of black subjects — a cowboy wearing an American flag shirt, say, or two women wearing brilliantly colored bathing suits and holding hands.

The portrait is plenty dramatic. It gives, though, a cool cast and distant mien to a vibrant woman who was one of the warmest first ladies in American history.

A different drama is presented by the painting of Barack Obama, a huge canvas by artist Kehinde Wiley. The ex-president, in a crisp suit, is seated in an elegant chair that floats amid a lush green tangle of leaves and vines. Poking out from the shrubbery are a flew flowers — chrysanthemums, official flower of Chicago, jasmine from Obama’s home state of Hawaii, and blue lilies representing his African heritage.

There had been a bit of trepidation out in comment-land when Mr. Wiley was originally chosen by the Obamas to do the ex-president’s portrait. Mr. Wiley’s oeuvre includes paintings of tattooed figures from the streets of New York, stars of pop culture and portraits from the African continent. All are carefully crafted, often with classical references.

Some of Mr. Wiley’s work, though, has been shocking. His two versions of the biblical Judith holding the severed head of Holofernes depict a black woman holding the cut-off cranium of a white woman.

When the Obamas’ portraits were unveiled at a ceremony at the Smithsonian the other day, there was a burst of applause. That may be because there’s no harsh political comment in either painting.

(The Internet, of course, lost no time in posting hilarious parodies. One showed a Donald Trump lookalike wearing a Make America Great Again hat and trimming the shrubbery behind an unwitting president.)

What a contrast to traditional portraits of our presidents. The canvases by Gilbert Stuart and others of Washington, Adams, Madison, Jefferson, Monroe are magnificent, but most are of a type.

It’s not just that they are men with pink faces, white collars and black coats. They are almost always either seated, in formal poses or standing by pillars or in official settings.

Some of those early paintings are true masterpieces. (I stop at the National Portrait Gallery every time I’m in Washington, just to stand among the Founders and savor the paintings.)

One later masterpiece emerged, according to a yarn I’ve heard, after President Teddy Roosevelt grew impatient with the artist dragging him around the White House looking for the right spot. TR finally whirled on the artist, grabbed the stair post, and growled something like “Enough!”

“Don’t move,” John Singer Sargent is supposed to have shouted, and whipped out his sketchbook to capture the famous pose.

Aaron Shikler’s pensive portrait of the martyred John F. Kennedy was done, of course, posthumously.

Yet to judge by the initial reaction, the remarkable paintings of the Obamas could end up inspiring a change in the kind of paintings that are done of our public figures.

Tom Freudenheim, a veteran museum director, tells me it’s possible to imagine that these paintings could “make people rethink what portraiture is supposed to be.”

It looks to me like the social-media snickering, especially over President Obama’s portrait, will age poorly. These paintings may affect what is sought by other future ex-presidents. Call it artistic change you can believe in.

This column first appeared in the New York Post.

The New York Sun

© 2023 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  Create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use