When the paintings of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled to the public in February 2018, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald became the first African-American artists to have been commissioned by the Smithsonian to paint the official president and first lady portraits. The portraits have since been on display in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and just a week after the portraits were installed, the number of visitors to the museum skyrocketed by over 300 percent.
As of January 2020, over four million people have gone to the museum to visit the portraits. These now-famous paintings will embark on a US tour starting in June 2021, being displayed in five major museums across the country in the course of a year. It is rare that presidential portraits travel so soon after a president’s term, but given the popularity of the artworks, the tour is meant to engage with audiences and especially young people who couldn’t make the trip to Washington D.C.
In addition, each city on the tour holds significance to the paintings themselves. The tour will kick off in Chicago, where Barack and Michelle first met and where Barack started his political career as an Illinois State Senator. The paintings will then travel to Brooklyn, New York, where artist Kehinde Wiley lives, and then onto his hometown of Los Angeles. Atlanta, Georgia marks the fourth stop on the US tour, where artist Amy Sherald is from, and lastly, the paintings will travel to Houston, Texas, chosen by the gallery curator as one of the most diverse cities in the country. Discover the full schedule here:
- June 18, 2021-August 15, 2021 @ Art Institute of Chicago
- August 27, 2021-October 24, 2021 @ Brooklyn Museum, New York
- November 5, 2021-January 2, 2022 @ Los Angeles County Museum of Art
- January 14, 2022-March 13, 2022 @ High Museum of Art, Atlanta
- March 25, 2022-May 30, 2022 @ The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The artists behind the portraits
As far as presidential portraits go, the Obama edition marks a striking difference compared to the traditional academic characteristics seen throughout history. Michelle and Barack specifically chose these two artists to paint them, knowing that their contemporary styles would signal a change in the aesthetics of presidential portraiture. A typical American presidential portrait contains quite neutral color palettes and backgrounds, and the subject is usually seen standing or sitting in a White House office dressed in a formal suit and tie. Portraits of first ladies have similarly been painted in a traditional fashion, with a bit more flair in terms of dress and background. Two first ladies even included their dog alongside them in their portraits! Meet the artists that decided to go where no presidential portrait painter has ever gone before.
Kehinde Wiley is a Nigerian-American painter based in New York City who blends classical techniques of portraiture with a contemporary flair in representing elements of black culture and identity. His portraits are striking in his use of bright color palettes and intricate floral and patterned backgrounds. His fusion of styles combined with his great technical skill bring a fresh take on portraiture to the canvas; throughout history and especially the canon of art, representation has been selective. Wiley says:
“If you look at the paintings that I love in art history, these are the paintings where great, powerful men are being celebrated on the big walls of museums throughout the world. What feels really strange is not to be able to see a reflection of myself in that world.”
For Obama’s portrait, Kehinde Wiley decided to paint him in front of lush green foliage, featuring chrysanthemums (the official flower of Chicago), African blue lilies, and jasmine (a symbol of Hawaii where Obama grew up). For the first time in history, the president is painted without a tie, bow tie, or any sort of fancy neck scarf like the original founding fathers. Lined up against the rest of the portraits, this one really does make an impression.
Amy Sherald is an American painter based in Baltimore, Maryland who explores the African-American experience through striking realist portraits. Similar to Wiley, Sherald engages directly with art history by including paintings and stories that have not been traditionally heard. A signature motif in her work is the gaze of the subject: in nearly all of her portraits, the subject makes direct eye contact with the viewer, straight on and with a powerful look. She usually paints her subjects against colored monochrome backgrounds, bringing our attention immediately to the figure. Sherald says:
“Art provides possible metaphors for things. It helps people to have an object in front of them to talk about so they’re not talking at each other, they’re looking at it. They’re talking indirectly about race because for some reason, some people are always uncomfortable talking about it. It also presents a corrective narrative. You can look at a lot of works done by black artists and see that we are trying to reimagine ourselves and identity.”
In painting Michelle Obama, Sherald chose to use grayscale for the first lady’s skintone, stating that the purpose was to “exclude the idea of color as race.” The minimal geometric patterned dress was designed by one of Michelle’s favorites, Michelle Smith for Milly, and was intended to be a forward-thinking design. Sherald mentioned that the patterns of the dress reminded her of Piet Mondrian, as well as the famous quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Overall, the portrait really captures a confident and approachable woman, who is not defined by the color of her skin, but by her power to inspire women of all ages.