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Michelle Obama

  • Portraits and the Artists


    The first 43 presidential portraits, and those of the corresponding first ladies,  have a certain similar quality to them. They look, for the most part, like classic portraits that strive to depict rather than illustrate. That is, they're grounded in realism in the same way as a photograph: here is the subject, here is the background.


    Forty-four is different. These paintings were created by two African-American artists, the first Presedential portaits for which that's true. Both artists were hand-picked by their subjects, based on Mr. and Mrs. Obama studying dozens of portfolios and conducting one-on-one interviews.


    Obama Presidential Portraits Portraits of Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald (NPR)

    Kehinde Wiley's Portrait of Mr. Obama

    Former President Barack Obama's Presidential Portrait Former President Barack Obama unveiling his portrait by Kehinde Wiley (NPR)

    Kehinde Wiley, who created Barack Obama's portrait, is already known for subverting the "classic" portrait, usually by painting a minority subject in a classical setting. One of his earlier works, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, shows not the expected Napoleon Bonaparte, but an African American man dressed in camouflage atop a horse. For Mr. Obama's portrait, Wiley depicted the president sitting casually in a formal chair. But the background has a surreal sense of imagination. The foliage that surrounds Mr. Obama is bright green and dotted with blooms, including pikake from his native Hawaii, African blue lilies from his father's native Kenya, and chrysanthemums to represent the Obama Family's hometown of Chicago.

    Kehinde Wiley grew up in LA with his twin brother and mother. Wiley studied painting at Yale.

    Amy Sherald's Portrait of Mrs. Obama

    Amy Sherald, in 2016, became the first woman to win the prestigious Outwin Boochever Portrait competition. She, like Wiley, is known for portraits of everyday people. Her work often features skin tones that are not strictly natural--often shades of gray--and so allow the other aspects of the painting to pop with color. For Mrs. Obama's portrait, Wiley used signature gray for her skin tone, with a flat, one-tone blue background. The dress, by designer Milly, is where the color resides. The patchwork style is reminiscent of a quilt, which the artist chose as a nod to the quilts of Gee's Bend, an Alabama community known for the gorgeous blankets created by its black female residents.

    The presidential portraits are hung in order, starting with George Washington, in the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery. Each of the 88 paintings (of presidents and wives) is its own, singular work of art, and the Obamas' portraits have taken that tradition to a new level.

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