The Obama Portraits

The portraits are here:

I’ve read one story saying Michelle Obama chose the artists herself, several saying the Obama’s chose them together, and one or two saying he chose his, she chose hers. I don’t know which is right. But it seems clear they didn’t choose without knowing the styles of the artists they chose, and the results are likely representative of what they wanted. So it might be an interesting discussion to ask your scholars at home why they think they chose these specific black artists. They did want black artists specifically, but they could have chosen others, why these?

Here are four pieces by Amy Sherald, the artist who did Michelle Obama (the four include Michelle’s painting):

My thoughts on her choice. I like it, personally. I agree with much of the criticism that the face doesn’t really look much like her, but I feel like the coolness, the iconic yet everywoman aura is possibly what she was going for. It’s a portrait of a historical moment bigger than an indidividual woman. I could be wrong, that’s just what I think. You don’t have to share this with your kids, you want their own views, not mine. I’m just offering it as an example of one opinion. I do think Sherald’s work would have been better received had it not been unveiled side by side with the more colourful and familiar style of Wiley’s work. Again, just my opinion.

WEll, golly. AFter I wrote the above, I found this:
“I paint American people, and I tell American stories through the paintings I create,” Sherald said. “Once my paintings are complete, the models no longer live in the paintings as themselves. I see something bigger in them, something more symbolic, an archetype. I paint things I want to see. I paint as a way of looking for myself in the world.”

Here’s a short story with some information on Michelle’s dress in the portrait, and a couple chuckles about Obama trying to negotiate the number of gray hairs down (those are ‘preacher stories,’ okay? He didn’t really do that):,amp.html

Kehinde Wiley did the former President’s portrait.
Kehinde Wiley usually has botanical backgrounds in his work. IN this case, he chose “chrysanthemums referencing the official flower of Chicago, jasmine evoking his native Hawaii and African blue lilies in memory of his late father.”

You might see if you recognize any other flowers or the leaves. People are calling it ivy, but on a FB plant ID group I’m on, one of the most authoritative members said they are rose leaves. I don’t know if that’s what Wiley intended or not (maybe have a student write the artist with questions), but I think it’s kind of cool if it is, referencing the Rose Garden at the White House.

Wiley has done some previously controversial work, depicting black women holding decapitated heads of white women. That sounds… unpleasant. Maybe yes. But ther is a bit more to it than that- he does recreations, representations of older work by the masters. One of those paintings, which despite it’s grotesque subject matter I find incredibly well done and beautiful, is a recreation of an older rendition of the Apocrphyal story of Judith beheading the General Holofernes.

I’m curious about his idea behind changing the very masculine general to a woman.

As you know, I am no fan of Obama’s presidency. But this is a discussion about art, and I think it’s important to let these two pieces speak for themselves. POlitics is also part of the context, but that can be another discussion. Just try to look at these paintings distanced from the politics for a while and see what you think, especially if you’re going to look at these with your kids. Give them access to information and ideas. Let them reach their own conclusions.

You may hate them. That’s okay. Not everybody loves Caravaggio, Mondrian, Picasso, or Raphael, either.

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  1. Posted February 13, 2018 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Our local art museum posted yesterday a photo comparing Wiley’s recreation of an older painting both held in their collection. It’s an intriguing comparison.

    Thanks for this. I hadn’t seen the former First Lady’s portrait.

  2. Christine Shah
    Posted February 13, 2018 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    I don’t hate them. I think they will look anachronistic in the setting and perhaps that is also what they wanted. Rather than appearing to join a grand tradition they chose to stick out.
    Stylistically speaking I much prefer Mrs. Obama’s portrait over his. It IS cool, if a bit unusual. His portrait looks flat and without depth, despite the detail. Meh.

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