Why the Obamas’ New Paintings Are a Milestone in Black Portraiture

Side-by-side images of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.
National Gallery / Kehinde Wiley; National Gallery / Amy Sherald

At first glance, the recently unveiled portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama appear as their occupancy of the White House did—a dazzling and elegant streak of light and color. President Obama is set against a riot of greenery that, according to the artist, charts “his path on Earth through those plants.” Michelle Obama, famous arms on display, is rendered in grayscale against a backdrop of blue as cool as Obama herself. In aesthetics, if not always in politics, the Obamas presented a bright and lovely contrast to the stately whiteness of the highest office of our country, and the portraits presented Monday by the National Portrait Gallery capture their joint vivacity.

The portraits are extraordinary for a myriad of reasons, not least of which is both artists the Obamas chose—Kehinde Wiley for the former president and Amy Sherald for the former first lady—are black.

To place the pieces in their artistic and political context (and ask whether it matters that Michelle Obama’s portrait doesn’t look exactly look like her), I spoke to Richard J. Powell, a professor of art and art history at Duke University and an expert in the history of black portraiture.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachelle Hampton: So what did you think of the portraits and of the Obamas’ choice of artists?

Richard Powell: I was surprised by the portraits and what I mean by that is, I found them to be more artistic than most typical official portraits are. If you go to the National Portrait Gallery and look at portraits of famous people, they tend to be real vanity pictures and often by artists who are able to do a likeness but they’re not able to really make what I would consider a profound artistic statement. There are lots of great portraits out there, but these are really strong works of art as well as portraits.

As to the choice of the artists, I thought it was special. Amy Sherald has been in the pipeline for a little while, but not as long as Kehinde Wiley, and so choosing to place someone I would still call up and coming alongside someone I would certainly call a veteran was inspired.

What statements do you think the artists are trying to make here? What do you think they’re trying to communicate?

Well, I want to separate them out. I want to start with the Michelle Obama portrait: It’s very much in Sherald’s style, which are these figures that are often placed on very flat backgrounds. She experiments with chroma so that the figures are not necessarily representing things in a realistic way, but they provide an interesting relationship of one color to another to another. What I was struck by in the Michelle Obama portrait was the graphic quality of it, and when I say graphic I mean that the dress is this dramatic abstract statement—the patterns in it, the bold shapes, the limited color palette—and that has an interesting way of interacting with Mrs. Obama’s figure, her famous arms are there, and they frame her head. Amy Sherald really is attuned to the interrelationship between the body and a pose and the accoutrements that surround that pose, in this case a very bold dress.

What do you think of the idea out there that the remoteness of Michelle’s expression is a commentary on her role, like you’re seeing the pageantry of the dress and her famous arms, but not really her expression or her face until you get up close?

People talk about how cool Barack Obama is. But I think Michelle is the epitome of cool, and what I mean by that is that she is very aware of her worlds, she’s very aware of how she presents herself, she understands the role that a prominent black woman has to play. When I look at that portrait, I really do understand that sense of poise. This is not a portrait of revealing one’s innermost thoughts and feelings or anything like that; it’s an official portrait, but also it really is her. In fact, I was thinking about an analogy: photographs by the West African photographers Seydou Keita or Malick Sidibé. They do portraits of these women in these beautiful fabrics, and the dresses fill up the photographic space and then they give you these incredible looks from their eyes to the camera. I’m not saying that Amy has looked at those, but they have that same sense of self-possession and style.

And what do you think Barack’s portrait was trying to communicate?

Kehinde Wiley is known for these over-the-top portraits of everyday young men of color, who he positions using poses from famous artworks, but they’re still wearing their hip-hop gear, their tennis shoes, their incredible tracksuits. And then he uses these wild backgrounds with elaborate patterns and the patterns often intersect the bodies of the sitters themselves. You don’t get that in this piece. What I really sense here (and President Obama said as much) is that he did not want to appear the way many of the subjects appear in Wiley’s paintings, which tells me that there was an incredible repartee, an incredible contract between the artist and the sitter in this instance that very much says the sitter had a way of wanting himself to be presented and Wiley said that “I’m gonna work with that.”

A lot of people are commenting about how the Wiley portrait engages with black masculinity. Could you speak a little bit about that?

That’s what Wiley is known for. His pictures show this bravado, but there’s also a poignancy in them in the sense that questions of power are just beneath the surface. With this one, one really does sense that the president is in command of that space at that moment. My real takeaway is that the portrait really does defer to this aura that Obama has, of both being very much a representative black man but also one who, with those wonderful hand gestures, has a side that is sensitive, that is empathetic, that is loving, that is caring. I think Wiley actually stretched to do something quite special, and it’s a real eye-opener.

Some people have argued that Michelle’s portrait doesn’t really look like her. From a genre standpoint, how much do portraits really need to look like their subjects?

I’m going to start off with the famous quote from Gertrude Stein, whose portrait was painted by Pablo Picasso at the beginning of the 20th century and people said it doesn’t look like you. And she said, “Don’t worry, it will soon.” I would say the same thing with this portrait, that while people were looking for a photographic likeness, that’s not what Amy does, so I think when you look at the gesture, when you look at the pose, when you feel the whole coolness of the piece, to me that is Michelle Obama. I think she nailed it in that regard.

How do you think these portraits fit into the larger genre of black portraiture?

Black people have a slightly different relationship with portraiture [than other groups] because we didn’t have [representations] in the past great black generals and celebrities. This is a fairly new phenomenon of the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. So on one hand these portraits, being in the portrait gallery, being of a president and a first lady, fulfill that [classic historical function]. But in terms of black people I think that these are two works that are very much preoccupied with a notion of style and given that Barack Obama and Michelle Obama were paragons of style when they first came onto the scene and probably still represent that, these works really do provide a continuum of that interest in the black body as evocative, as making a statement that perhaps goes beyond a realism and goes into a certain ethos of pride, of cool, of struggle, of all sorts of issues that really do exemplify the experience.

How do you think these portraits fit into the larger genre of presidential portraiture?

Totally different, they don’t look like anything you would see in the National Portrait Gallery. There was a moment, I think, in the ’60s where a few artists did some wild pictures of Jackie Kennedy and also of JFK, but that was a wild moment anyway. By and large the tradition is pretty conservative, and the portraits are mostly done by official portrait painters. These just stick out in a delightful way.

So earlier you said these paintings were preoccupied by style, could you say a little bit more about what that means?

Let me reshape the question, what is black style? Black style is an expression of power. It’s a power that may not be literal power but it’s the power to refashion one’s self to make a statement about one’s place in society, make a statement about working one’s way against the tides of negativity. We’ve got this film that’s coming out in the next few days, and I haven’t seen it yet but I’m assuming one of the reasons people have been so excited about it is that it’s talking about black style in a way that goes against the grain of decades and decades and even centuries of statements that say black people are ugly, black people are buffoons, etc. So style becomes the way to go against all that, to assert one’s self as on equal footing with other people of value in the world. The specifics of the style are complex: We have black style from West Africa, where all those gorgeous dark brown people are six foot tall and wear all those wonderful pieces of cloth wrapped around their heads and are letting the cloth fly all over the place. I grew up in Chicago in the 1960s, and so I’m also thinking about all those guys in those sharkskin suits and that processed hair. We could go on with a list of all the different evocations of black style over time, but these pieces certainly do represent one of the stops along the way.