The Obamas’ portraits are not what you’d expect, and that’s why they’re great

The National Portrait Gallery has unveiled the official portraits of former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, both painted by African American artists, and both striking additions to the museum’s “America’s Presidents” exhibition. The 44th president is seen sitting on a wooden armchair that seems to be floating amid a scrim of dense foliage and flowers in an image by Kehinde Wiley. The first lady, painted against a robin’s egg blue background, rests her chin on one hand and stares at the viewer with a curious mix of confidence and vulnerability in a canvas by Amy Sherald.

The artists, chosen by the Obamas, have combined traditional representation with elements that underscore the complexity of their subjects, and the historic fact of their political rise. And both painters have managed to create compelling likenesses without sacrificing key aspects of their signature styles. The Obamas took a significant chance on both artists and were rewarded with powerful images that will shake up the expectations and assumptions of visitors to the traditionally button-down presidential galleries.

Wiley, an established artist whose work is held by prominent museums worldwide, has produced a characteristically flat, almost polished surface, with intensely rich colors and a busy, sumptuous background that recalls his interest in historical portraiture.

Sherald, who won the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever prize in 2016, has painted Michelle Obama’s face in the gray tones of an old black-and-white photograph, set against a preternaturally bright background, a technique she has used to introduce a heightened sense of the surreal in many of her works.

But both artists also have tempered aspects of their usual styles to create works that emphasize the dignity of the subject over the irony of the artist. Wiley, who has made portraits of LL Cool J, Michael Jackson and Notorious B.I.G., often skewers the pomp and grandiloquence of historical portraiture, painting his subjects in poses familiar from classic works by Napoleon’s propagandist, Jacque-Louis David, or Tiepolo or Peter Paul Rubens (Wiley depicted Jackson on horseback, wearing the armor of a Habsburg king, crowned by angelic flying figures). Many of his works, which engage with hip-hop culture, have a distinct homoerotic quality as well.

Wiley’s portrait of the former president doesn’t go there. Indeed, the pose of Obama, who is seen in a dark suit with an open-collar shirt, sitting with his arms crossed and resting on his knees, recalls Robert Anderson’s official 2008 portrait of George W. Bush, who is rendered in a similar, casual pose. Nor does Sherald, who often depicts her subjects with some curiously evocative object (a bunch of balloons or a model ship) that creates a dreamlike atmosphere, emphasize the phantasmagorical in her portrait of Michelle Obama.

Read more at The Washington Post.