The Obama Portraits Break Tradition, And It’s About Time

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Barack and Michelle Obama’s official portraits were unveiled yesterday in front of a crowd at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.  Like many good portraits, the occasion was packed with symbolism.  For starters, they chose Abraham Lincoln’s birthday to unveil the paintings.  Now, 153 years after the abolition of slavery in the United States, a black man and women finally sit in the National Portrait Gallery.  Two portraits of a black couple, painted by black artists, who specialize in black subjects.

Barack’s portrait represents a break in a long chain of stolid white men, posing for their portraits in very traditional manners.  The Presidential portrait has from its outset followed a bit of a formula, the subject poses in an office type environment, wearing a suit and tie, in front of some leather bound books or maybe at a mahogany desk ect. You can see all the official portraits of presidents at to compare, but as you can see from the examples of Nixon, Bush, Jefferson, and Lincoln bellow, the Obama portrait clashes with tradition both figuratively and literally.

Wiley painted President Barack Obama’s likeness in front of the green, leafy background the artist is known for, with his subject seated, leaned forward, arms folded with an intense and confident gaze, looking right at the viewer, but not through them.   Obama is painted with his collar open, (the first Presidential portrait without a necktie).  The flowers in the painting are symbolic too.  The African blue lilies represent Kenya and his father’s birthplace, Jasmine represents Hawaii, his birthplace, and chrysanthemums represent Chicago where he met Michelle and started his family and political career.

President portrait artists over the years have certainly imposed their own styles and artistic license to their presidential subjects, but the Obama portraits feel and look a lot different.

President Obama, Official Presidential Portrait at the Smithsonian by Kehinde Wiley.

Wiley told the press Monday that he and President decided together to discard tradition, and that the narrative had to do with openness, there’s an open collar, a sense of openness, and that the painting is designed to say more than one thing at a time.

Barack Obama said he admired how Wiley’s photos “challenge our conventional views of power and privilege.” But he said he rejected Wiley’s ideas that involved him, for instance, riding a horse.

” ‘I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon,’ ” he remembered telling Wiley. ” ‘You’ve got to bring it down a touch.’ And that’s what he did.”

Wiley is famous for remixing classical European portraiture by inserting black subjects and modern prints and fashion.

“How do you explain that a lot of that is just simply not true?” Wiley said, when he began speaking to the crowd at the Smithsonian. Then he got more serious.

“The ability to be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming,” Wiley said. “It doesn’t get any better than that. I was humbled by this invitation but I was also inspired by Barack Obama’s personal story.”

“Wiley typically portrays people of color posing as famous figures in Western art,” the Portrait Gallery writes. “Through this practice, he challenges the visual rhetoric of power that is dominated by elite white men.”


Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald, a Baltimore-based artist who is also known for painting African American subjects.  Unlike Wiley, Sherald doesn’t have a team of assistance churning out her art like a record label printing albums for international distribution.  Siherald is one woman, in a studio, painting.  Her depiction of Michelle shows how large and important the first lady looms in the artist’s mind.  The dress almost forms a pyramid for Michelle to sit on top of, cross-legged, cool, collected, elegant.  African patterns decorate the dress and the dress dominates the painting.  In real life, Michelle always seems to project strength, poise, and confidence, and I think this painting captures that.

Artist Amy Sherald, left, with one of her paintings, right, “The Make Believer (Monet’s Garden)” (2016)


Michelle Obama spoke at the unveiling thanking those involved and saying, “I’m also thinking of all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who … will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution,” she said. “I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls.”

The Artist Sherald turned to Michele Obama during her turn at the podium and told Michelle in front of the crowd, “You exist in our minds and our hearts in the way that you do because we can see ourselves in you,” she said.

The new paintings of the Obamas will be on view to the public beginning Tuesday.  Here is the full video of the unvieling and the speeches:

Wiley’s painting of President Obama will be permanently installed in the “America’s Presidents” exhibit, The Portrait Gallery has the “only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House,” the museum said in a statement.  Michelle’s painting will hang in a temporary exhibit, separate from the men.  Perhaps yet another reminder that a woman has yet to be elected President of the United States.  All the official portraits of America’s First Ladies can be seen at

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Alex Mak - Managing Editor

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

I'm the managing editor here at Broke-Ass Stuart. I enjoy covering Bay Area News as well as writing about Arts, Culture & Nightlife.

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