On Monday, portraits of the former American President Barack Obama, and the former First Lady Michelle Obama were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. They were painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, who were selected by the Obamas after interviews at the White House; they are the first ever African-American artists to paint the presidential portraits.
Wiley has depicted Obama sitting forward in a carved wooden chair in a dark, tie-less suit; he is frowning, deep in thought. The space around the former president is richly verdant: glossy leaves lie against a dark field amongst a scattering of delicate blooms. The background recalls the finely detailed illuminations on medieval manuscripts. The parallels with western canon are no accident: the 40 year-old New York-Based artist Kehinde Wiley is best known for his large scale paintings of African-American subjects, often found on the streets of Harlem, in the roles of figures of power. In one painting for example, a young black man is portrayed riding a rearing horse, golden cape swirling around him in a pose lifted from the 19th century painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David.
Before the unveiling, Barack Obama joked that he had to dissuade Wiley from painting him with a crown, saying “I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon!”. For a painting of the first black president, no mere allusion to power is needed, but there are layers of meaning in Wiley’s portrait: the flowers around Obama detail his heritage: African blue lilies represent his Kenyan father, the jasmine is for Hawaii where Obama grew up, and the chrysanthemum, the official flower of Chicago, honours the city where he met Michelle, and where his political career started.
Sherald’s painting of the former first lady depicts her against a periwinkle blue field in a white gown by the designer Michelle Smith. Michelle Obama praised Sherald’s work and said she was thinking of the girls, particularly the girls of colour, “who in years ahead will come to this place and… see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution. And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls, and when I think about those future generations and generations past, I think wow, what an incredible journey we are on together in this country.”
The portraits of the Obamas will remain on display at the gallery, where the former president’s likeness will join the ranks of presidential portraits through the ages, including that of George Washington.