The official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama have received largely positive reviews from Yale students and faculty and staff members.
Unveiled on Feb. 12 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., the canvases are distinctive in a number of ways — not only as the first portrayals of a black first couple or as the first presidential portraits by black artists, but also as works that defy conventional standards of portraiture. The artists include Kehinde Wiley ART ’01 and Amy Sherald, who depicted the former president and first lady, respectively.
“I’m just thinking of all the dining halls,” said Danielle Lotridge ’19. “These [portraits] are so different, like pop art. They’re really fantastic.”
The former president selected Wiley, a high-profile portraitist, to render his likeness. Wiley is known for painting African-Americans in the style of old European masterpieces. In some works, he has transplanted black men and women directly into some of Western art’s most famous compositions, such as his “Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps,” a painting modeled on Jacques-Louis David’s ubiquitous portrayal of the French emperor. Wiley has gained a following over the past 10 or so years by putting black figures in positions usually held by white men on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre and the National Portrait Gallery.
“When students in the future look at a series of the first 50 U.S. presidents, Obama will always stand out,” said Zach Miller ’21. “So it’s interesting that his portrait will, too.”
Wiley’s trademark style fits a president who for two terms held an office held by white men for centuries. Wiley created a bright and visually arresting portrait, one that depicts Obama sitting upon an ochre chair, in a simple black suit, seemingly fastened to a bed of leaves and flowers representative of different aspects of his identity. According to New York Times art critic Holland Cotter, African blue lilies symbolize Kenya, his father’s birthplace; chrysanthemums are the official flowers of Chicago, the city where he became involved in politics and met his wife; and jasmine stands for Hawaii, the former president’s birthplace.
“While past portraits tend to exemplify the power invested in the oval office, this portrait focuses on the personal side of President Obama — his heritage and his personality,” said Sheldon Zhao ’21. “I think this is a very fitting theme of our modern culture. We’re celebrating individual human beings and their lived reality.”
Robert Storr, a professor at the School of Art and its former dean, praised the portrait for departing from convention, calling it a “fresh painting” and a “sign of life” in the genre.
Sherald, a the lesser-known of the two painters, brought her signature vibrant monochrome background, this time powder blue, and grayscale that illustrates her subject’s skin to the project. In the portrait, the first lady wears a floor-length ball gown that fills much of the frame. If Wiley’s president is engaged, leaning forward as if to lend initiate a conversation, Sherald’s first lady is withdrawn, in meditative contemplation.
Though the depictions of both Obamas have come under fire nationally for their unconventional uses of background and color, Sherald’s work has received particular scrutiny from Yalies.
“I think it’s weird that [Barack] Obama is in color, and Michelle is in grayscale,” said Zyria Rodgers ’21. “It works for the aesthetic of the picture — all cool tone — but Barack is in nature with colors. It seems like he’s more there.”
Critics also have remarked on the lack of verisimilitude in Sherald’s portrait. Storr said he found the first lady’s portrait “less successful,” saying that it does not resemble her as much as her husband’s portrait resembles him.
But for Anoka Faruqee ’94, the director of graduate studies in painting and printmaking at the School of Art, both portraits were “wonderful examples of contemporary figurative art.”
“The works, while built on traditional ideas of likeness and representation, defied expectation in what has become the all-too-conventional format of the official political or institutional portrait,” Faruqee wrote in an email to the News.
The two portraits are currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. Barack Obama’s portrait will ultimately reside in the “America’s Presidents” gallery, whereas Michelle Obama’s will hang in the “Recent Acquisitions” gallery through November.
Brianna Wu | firstname.lastname@example.org