Last week the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, unveiled the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama (above). The former President and First Lady chose two African-American artists to portray their images, and though their unconventional artistry raised a few eyebrows and drew some criticism they barely rippled the waters compared to other news coming out of Washington last week.
In office, the Obamas were not perfect but I’d give anything to have them back. Mr. Obama may have failed us when he didn’t observe the “red line” in Syria, but he always projected the character, intelligence, judgment, language, and respect for others that we expect from the President of the United States.
Speaking apolitically, the Obama portraits are fascinating – unexpected depictions of the most charismatic and attractive residents of the White House since Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Mr. Obama is particularly idiosyncratic. Wiley has been a favorite of mine since the Seattle Art Museum mounted a large exhibit of his work in May of 2016. His beautiful photo-realistic paintings jar viewer sensibilities by juxtaposing African-American celebrities or street people into reimagined classical paintings or unusual portrait poses.
At the unveiling ceremony Mr. Obama joked that he tried to negotiate with the artist for less gray hair and smaller ears, but Wiley wasn’t swayed. He does respect the President’s roots by incorporating pikake flowers representing Hawaii, African blue lilies to signify his father’s birthplace in Kenya, and red chrysanthemums the city flower of his hometown, Chicago, in the background foliage. It says a lot about Mr. Obama that he had the confidence to select an artist as wildly unconventional as Kehinde Wiley to memorialize him and stand with the portraits of all the other presidents in the National Portrait Gallery.
I’m equally impressed by Mrs. Obama’s distinctive portrait. The First Lady’s unknown and unlikely painter of choice, Amy Sherald, is only 44 years old, had a heart transplant at 39, and until a few years ago was waiting tables in Baltimore. As Mr. Wiley’s paid homage to the Mr. Obama’s roots, Ms. Sherald honors Mrs. Obama’s sense of fashion, depicting her in an elegant, high-style geometrically patterned dress. Both artists chose to show their subjects in pensive, serious, non-smiling poses and Mrs. Obama’s gray skin tone with a solid blue background enhances that affect as well.
Marilynn and I visited the National Portrait Gallery two years ago. Only a few blocks off the Washington Mall and not nearly as busy as the National Gallery, it’s well worth the excursion. I’d make the trip again just to see the new portraits. I love the idea that they’re back and larger than life (7’ to be exact). My grandchildren, Ben and Lucie, loved the Wiley show in Seattle. I can’t remember if we took them once or twice, jazzed and had a ton of fun dancing to the whimsy in his paintings.
Having seen the Obama portraits, I’m trying to conjure up the next presidential portrait. What pose Mr. Trump would choose? This is one possibility, an actual photo, in the gold-encrusted throne room at Trump Tower:
I’m sure he loves that pose, but here are two other possibilities:
However the next round turns out, consider how the pair below contrast in style to that of the poseur who took their place. I love their new portraits and they get my vote as the most natural, admirable, and inspirational presidential couple in decades, and I think their official portraits capture those qualities. Bravo, Barack and Michelle.