Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald: Revelations in the art community

Striking portraits of the Obamas inspire
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It was a historic day on Feb. 12 when the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled the official portraits for former President and First Lady Barack and  Michelle Obama. The Obamas, who became the first African-American President and First Lady to have their portraits displayed at this institution, graced the gallery with images that distinguish themselves from their predecessors with vibrancy and liveliness. But it was also a significant event, as the  National Portrait Gallery commissioned the first two African-American artists to paint the official presidential portraits.

In Obama’s portrait, by Kehinde Wiley, he is seated in a chair surrounded by foliage with hues of green, yellow, and pinks.  Michelle’s portrait by Amy Sherald displayed the First Lady seated as well. Michelle stood out with patterned textiles on her dress. Despite the breathtaking portraits, there was a lot of criticism surrounding them as many people believed that they should have possessed more formal qualities. The assumed informality is misunderstood, as there is a method behind the madness, and for artists Wiley and Sherald, these portraits had a lot of personal and societal  meaning behind them.

Wiley is a contemporary New York-based artist whose style is bold and often includes colorful depictions of black men and women in the style of Classical European portraiture with beautiful and intricate floral backgrounds. What’s distinct about Wiley’s art is the juxtaposition he creates within his pieces, finding models from urban environments  around the world to assume poses found in paintings or sculptures representative of the history of their surroundings.

Wiley depicts marginalized people in society as powerful and he attempts to recognize the beauty, grace, and dignity of these people and highlights them through his unmatched portraiture on a grand stage. Combined with bursts of jewel-tone colors and Rococo floral swirls, Wiley applies the visual vocabulary and conventions of glorification, history, wealth, and prestige to his work.

Chosen by Obama himself, Wiley’s portrait of the former president included stripping him of the traditional backgrounds of the oval office and immersing him in lush greenery, depicting  a culmination of the former president’s life journey. African blue lilies scattered throughout the background represent  Obama’s father’s home country of Kenya. Chrysanthemums are also interspersed alongside the African blue lilies, which are the official flower of Chicago, where Obama met his wife Michelle and started both his family and political career. And Pikake, or Arabian Jasmine, thrives in Hawaii, where the President spent much of his youth.

Where Wiley uses bright colors that are often exuberant and lush, Sherald’s work is minimalistic and her work focuses more on the models themselves. As a Baltimore artist, Sherald is a rising star in the artistic community for her distinct use of using gray skin tones when painting portraits of African-American models. For Michelle’s portrait, Sherald styled her in a Milly dress that reminded Sherald of the patterns of Gee’s Bend—a black community in Alabama famous for its brilliant quilts. While keeping it simple with a pale blue backdrop, Sherald wanted to depict Michelle the way people look up to her—as someone with integrity, intellect, confidence, and compassion.

While there have been many conversations following the reveal of the portraits, one thing is for certain: these portraits and those who are presented in them will serve as an inspiration to people everywhere. These are paintings that represent the people who will look up  and see images of themselves. 

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