The Obama portraits: what they say to us

16 February 2018

Portrait of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald
Portrait of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald

The unveiling of the Obama portraits at the National Portrait Gallery earlier this week were met with a strong reaction. From the choice of artists, colour, and backdrops in which the Obama's were set, the artistic world and twittersphere, have, expectedly, given their critique. But, what is our view of these presidential masterpieces?

The artists chosen to portray the Obama's - Kehinde Wiley for Barack Obama's portrait and Amy Sherald for Michelle Obama's portrait - are both of African-American backgrounds themselves, and often address politics of race in their work.

"These are portraits that draw on the deep well of African-American painterly talent to create fitting and affectionate monuments to two of the most important black American role models of their generation," explains Professor Mark Ledbury from the Department of Art History at the University of Sydney.

Painted sitting forward on a chair in a bed of green leaves, Obama gives off "West Coast flower pop vibes," says Ledbury.

"Barack's portrait is of a thinker both deep and hip. His chair floats in a dense landscape, part symbolic Renaissance Garden, Hortus Conclusus, or Millefleurs tapestries. But the chair, and the imposing aura of the subject bring other, more sculptural shades of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' portrait masterpiece, Monsieur Bertin, whose central figure also emerges, powerfully, from an antique chair, and even of seated coronation portraits and statues of great antique thinkers," continues Ledbury.

"This all gives Barack Obama a gravitas and a profundity, and at the same time imparts a witty, counter-cultural, even album cover vibe."

In contrast, the portrait of the former First Lady, Michelle Obama, created by Amy Sherald, uses different methods to those of Wiley to deliver its visual punch.

Ledbury explains, "the absence of a background ornament in Michelle's portrait in itself is a striking contrast to that of her husband. But just like Wiley's portrait of Obama, Sherald's portrait expresses both Michelle's seriousness and her deep cool - somehow capturing that sense of Michelle Obama as both activist and fashion leader that those of us familiar with her media appearances can't help but notice and admire."

For Ledbury, Michelle's portrait evokes various portrait references and styles.

"Michelle's portrait is an imposing sculptural presence, and at the same time, almost fluid. Her poise, elegance and quick thought are conveyed in a way that reminds us of the great English portrait tradition - think of Thomas Gainsborough and his portrait of the Hon. Mrs Watson, with its flowing drapery, and its elegance of limbs."

"At the same time, it is a striking modern portrait - think of the geometric patterns of the absurdly stylish, voluminous art-deco dress, like a Bauhaus or De Stijl pattern."

While the boldness of the portraits, naturally, won't be to everyone's taste, "they are both brave portraits," says Ledbury. Not unlike the subjects themselves.