National Portrait Gallery unveils historic Obama portraits

By Dan Evans
On February 19, 2018

Photo courtesy of @MichelleObama, Instagram

On Feb. 12, a historical presidency was capped off by the unveiling of two historic portraits, as the National Portrait Gallery unveiled and installed their newest works, the portraits of 44th President, Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama.

In many ways, these portraits closely tie into the presidency of Obama and the first lady-hood of his wife, Michelle. The most prominent similarity is the breaking of the color barrier, as both portraitists are the first African-Americans to have been commissioned to paint president and first lady portraits for the National Portrait Gallery.

The two talented artists were Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. Wiley worked on President Obama’s piece, while Sherald did the first lady’s portrait. They also both share a similar story besides working on the same political couple.

Kehinde, according to a report from the New York Times, has been known throughout his career for primarily focusing on African-Americans through a traditional style of painting. Amy Sherald, who according to the Times, broke onto the scene at a later time, also focuses on African-Americans as primary subjects in her pieces. Sherald works out of a small studio where she is left alone to do her work.

Both portraits strayed away from the presidential-like feel that is conveyed through the majority of past presidential portraits. In many of them, the president is portrayed in a stiff and firm manner, seemingly deep in thought about a pressing issue or surrounded by some sort of reminder of their time in office or their time serving in the military.

Barack Obama’s portrait shows him sitting in a wooden chair in a garden with his arms crossed with a stoic look on his face. The former first lady is seated as well in her portrait, with her chin resting on her hand. She appears to be in deep thought as well. The colors that Sherald use are darker shades of grey and black. The dress that Michelle is wearing has boxes of red, purple, and yellow at the bottom.

These portraits to many may appear to be simple and one-dimensional. However, there is a great deal of symbolism incorporated into the portrait of our 44th President. If you look closely, you will find flowers, each symbolizing an important part of Obama’s life.

According to the New York Times, African blue lilies are made present to represent Kenya, the birthplace of Obama’s father. Jasmine represents Hawaii, which is where he himself was born. The official flower of Chicago, the chrysanthemum, represents the city where his career in politics started.

For the artists, the Obama family, and the rest of the African-American community, the portraits, as well as who painted them, represent the change that Mr. Obama had hoped for at the start of his presidency.

These portraits will fill many with hope as Michelle Obama said, “I’m also thinking about all the young people — particularly girls and girls of color — who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution,” in a statement given to the Times.

While we are still a long way from the change that needs to take place within our country, the change represented by the portraits and their artists serve as a great reminder of how far we have come.

 

    devans3@ramapo.edu

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