Why Michelle Obama’s portrait doesn’t need to look exactly like her
The Obamas were back in Washington on Monday for the unveiling of their official portraits that will hang in the National Portrait Gallery.
While Barack Obama’s portrait — the former president seated in a chair surrounded by flowers and leaves– was intriguing, it was the depiction of former first lady Michelle Obama that stole the show — primarily because some corners of the Internet didn’t think the portrait looked much like Mrs. Obama.
In search of an expert opinion, I reached out to Philip Kennicott, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for The Washington Post. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Tell me about the artist who created the Michelle Obama portrait. How was she chosen? What else do we know of her work?
Kennicott: Amy Sherald is a Baltimore-based artist who won the 2016 Outwin Boochever award, a national portraiture competition administered by the National Portrait Gallery. She was among a short list of possible artists submitted to the Obamas for their selection.
Her work focuses on African-American subjects, often painted against brilliantly colored backgrounds, and sometimes holding an object (an oversized coffee cup, or a bunch of balloons) that gives the image a sense of the surreal. She focuses on the dignity and inner life of the people she paints, and then gives her paintings evocative and sometimes cryptic titles, for example, a painting of a young man wearing an American flag shirt is called, “What’s precious inside of him does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence (All American).” Since winning the portrait competition, her career has been on a rapid trajectory, with museums adding her work to their collections and collectors eager to commission new pieces.
Cillizza: My first reaction to the portrait was that it didn’t look like Michelle Obama. Do you share that view?
Kennicott: I think it does look like Mrs. Obama, though the rendering is not quite as photographically precise as Kehinde Wiley’s painting of the former President.
Sherald does a couple of things that may lessen the sense of verisimilitude. First, she paints skin tones in a gray scale more reminiscent of black-and-white photography than the colors that would strike us as “real” in a color photograph today. The idea is to underscore the fact that during the 19th century, African Americans were rarely the subject of formal portraits. To retain a likeness, they had to be photographed, which was cheaper and more accessible. So Michelle Obama’s face stares at us today as if looking out of an album of old family photographs. Sherald also painted the first lady sitting, and much of our impression of Mrs. Obama has to do with her stature and impeccable posture. Here we see her in a private moment, self-contained, and in some ways retreating into the expanse of the dress that she is wearing.
Cillizza: How important is it for a portrait to look like the person being portrayed? Is it fundamental or irrelevant?
Kennicott: This all depends on the purpose of the portrait. A formal portrait for the America’s Presidents exhibition is expected to be a compelling likeness, though there is still considerable freedom for experimentation. To represent John F. Kennedy, for example, the National Portrait Gallery uses an image by Elaine de Kooning which gives the strong sense of being provisional and improvisatory, with the paint seemingly smeared quickly and thinly on the canvas.
Formal portraits, however, are a small subset of portraiture, which is wide open for experimentation. An earlier winner of the same contest that Sherald won in 2016 made his portraits by digitally scanning his subjects as they lay on a table. These video portraits move slowly up the length of the body, only revealing the face at the end. Portraits can also be entirely conceptual, but the process whereby the National Portrait Gallery commissions presidential portraits is structured to prevent anything too radical emerging from the artist.
Cillizza: How much of a social statement is made by the Michelle Obama portrait? And, what is it?
Kennicott: It’s a powerful and important social statement. Mrs. Obama is the first African-American first lady, and the simple fact of her portrait hanging with those of other first ladies is a cultural and emotional milestone.
That she chose Sherald as an artist is also significant. Sherald has a significant career, but has only in her 40s emerged on the national stage. Established artists don’t need commissions; Mrs. Obama’s selection of Sherald, however, will have a major impact on her career right when she needs it.
And Sherald doesn’t make the kind of portraits you see hanging in boardrooms or above the fireplace mantle in the homes of the 1%. She focuses on African-Americans and renders them with great psychological intimacy. The colors she uses don’t have that warm, burnished glow you expect from classic portraiture, and the immediacy of her renderings isn’t filtered through the careful staging of power. Her subjects, including the first lady, are exposed, and open, and that in itself is fairly radical within the narrow limits of presidential portraiture.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The reaction in the art world to the Michelle Obama portrait will be/is _____________.” Now, explain.
The art world never agrees on much of anything and there will be significant debate about this image. Portraiture is considered to be a bit of an old-fashioned backwater in the larger art world, so there will be people who sniff at the whole idea of making a traditional likeness of an important woman. Realistic renderings are also seen as a bit retardataire in some corners, so Sherald’s painting may be deemed out of step with contemporary art fixations.
But I think there will be considerable acclaim for this work, too, because Sherald managed to stay true to her own stylistic inclinations while producing a serviceable formal image. And my guess is that Mrs. Obama is a beloved figure throughout much of the art world, and Sherald’s painting will benefit from that sentiment. Sherald is a charismatic figure, and I expect that are many people who will be happy to discover her work.