The portraits, which had their official unveiling in 2018 at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., are part of the institution’s historic presidential collection, an assembly of commissioned portraits that began with President George H.W. Bush. In 2006, the gallery extended the works to include portraits of the first ladies.
“These particular portraits show awareness of the tradition of state portraiture, but the artists really update it in a very contemporary way,” said EugenieTsai, a curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum, of the Obama portraits.
The Obamas selected artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald from a short list of candidates to paint their individual portraits. Both painters incorporated photographs, in-person sittings, and the direct in-put of the former president and first lady to craft their compositions.
Barack Obama’s near life-size oil on canvas, created by Wiley, is a simple image brimming with symbolism. The painting depicts Obama in a casual pose surrounded by a floral background - a common technique of Wiley’s - with flowers that represent his personal and professional history.
Chrysanthemums, for example, reference the official flower of his home in Chicago, the jasmine evokes memories of his childhood in Hawaii, and the African blue lilies connect him to his late Kenyan father.
“What I was always struck by whenever I saw Wiley’s portraits was the degree to which they challenge our conventional views of power and privilege, and the way that he would take extraordinary care and precision and vision in recognizing the beauty and the grace and dignity of people who are so often invisible in our lives,” Obama originally told reporters when discussing his decision. “He puts them on a grand stage, on a grand scale and forces us to look and see them in ways that so often they are not.”
In contrast, the portrait of Michelle Obama, an oil on linen painted by artist Amy Sherald, is stark, set against a pale blue background with the intent of making Obama the center of attention.
Dominating the composition is her monumental dress, a design by Michelle Smith that the artist recognized for its visual affinities with the quilts made by a remote black community in Alabama. Obama’s image gazes directly at the viewer, with a hand under her chin.
Her skin tone represents the gray scale of photography that both alludes to photographic sources and complicates the notion of race, as noted by Sherald.
“Both of these artists have crafted the likeness of powerful individuals who are very much living in the present, but will also be looked at and recognized for their historical contributions for years to come,” said Tsai.
The portraits, which recently completed a stint at The Art Institute of Chicago, will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum until October 24, after which they will travel to Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston, returning to the Smithsonian Gallery in 2022.