The Obama Portraits: Art As Social Significance by Larry Madrigal


As a figurative artist (the kind who paints people a lot), it was surprising to hear so much conversation revolving around that old genre of portraiture after the unveiling of the Obama portraits at the National Portrait Gallery last week. It was surprising precisely because portraiture hardly makes news in contemporary art. I know this because I’m also a portrait painter. But last week was different.

The painting of the former president by the globally-known artist Kehinde Wiley did not follow the typical formula of a noble-looking man posing at a desk, near a flag, in some kind of earth-tone palette (lots of brown colors). Instead, it was the antithesis of tradition. There’s no desk, no flag, and the earth-tone palette is replaced with prismatic greens. In the large canvas, Obama sits in a wooden chair surrounded by a dense garden of leaves covering the entire space. Some of the details are symbolic--such as the different flowers, which according to Wiley, represent Obama’s birthplace, his Kenyan heritage, and Chicago.

In Michelle’s portrait, painted by artist Amy Sherald, Michelle sits in a largely empty space wearing a white dress with a bold modernistic pattern. One is initially confused, and struck by the fact that her skin is painted completely gray. The warm fleshly colors are replaced with neutral concrete tones. It’s important to know that these paintings are not necessarily new or shockingly unique, as many artists have already transgressed the historical European portrait aesthetic. But Wiley and Sherald have interrupted the expectation of traditional portraiture, specifically for presidents.

For centuries, the goal of portraiture was to capture the inner essence of the sitter. In a sense, painters worked to capture the soul of an individual. Artists labored to master their craft, train their eyes, and strengthen their visual devises to achieve this. But, last week, capturing the internal essence was irrelevant to the conversation. Instead, the focus was on the social significance regarding both the sitters and the specific artists commissioned. The portraits capture something else.

According to art historian Robert Hobbs, Michelle Obama’s gray skin tone was a statement by the artist about the social construct of race. And, for years, Wiley has been well known for his series that deal with power and privilege, in which he substituted the protagonists of famous Western art with black hip-hop characters as a way to re-paint history. He has inserted figures who were absent from art history to change the narrative. Barack Obama’s portrait is a standard Wiley painting.

And Sherald’s work did not, in any meaningful way, strive to capture Michelle’s soul.

When considering what art has become in the past three decades--namely, when we consider the shift from authentic human expression to social practice and critique--the response over the two portrait paintings is not surprising after all. If anything, Wiley and Sherald captured the essence, not of two individuals, but of the current American scene. These paintings reveal a country with a mission to correct its own history. The portraits’ historical significance is not, and would never be, based on any artistic mastery or skillful rendition of Barack and Michelle Obama, but on what society has made them symbolize. Change.