Let’s face it, most official portraits are traditional and, well, a little staid. While their subjects are usually respectfully and skillfully depicted, these often easy-to-forget paintings offer little in the way of visual pizzazz.
But the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery buck convention in almost every way, and crowds have flooded this arm of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., since the works were unveiled in 2018.
“These portraits have gotten a very different reception than any other presidential portraits in our history,” said Taína Caragol, curator of painting and sculpture and Latino art and history at the National Portrait Gallery. “I think that is because the artists that the Obamas chose are very much part of the contemporary art world and not the formal tradition of state portraiture.”
In part because of the unprecedented appeal of these works, the Portrait Gallery decided to tour them to five major museums across the United States, and Chicago will get the first viewing, starting Friday at the Art Institute of Chicago, where the exhibit will run through Aug. 15.
“Because they have been so popular and because they have really redefined portraiture and brought about important discussions around representation, we thought it would be important to share them with the nation,” said Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, “and have venues in all different parts of the country.”
The Portrait Gallery began commissioning portraits of the presidents in 1994 and first ladies in 2006. (It owns nearly 2,000 other examples of both in its collection — just not ones it directly commissioned.)
Typically, museum officials start a conversation with White House curators about the portraits toward the end of a president’s term and propose possible artists. According to Caragol, 15 artists were suggested to the Obamas and each whittled the possible names down to a group of finalists whom they interviewed.
In the end, Obama picked Kehinde Wiley to paint his portrait and Michelle Obama chose Amy Sherald, and the works were created in 2017 after the presidential couple left the White House. The two widely known artists were the first African Americans to receive such commissions. (Simmie Knox was the inaugural African American to paint an official presidential portrait, creating the White House portrait of Bill and Hillary Clinton.)
Wiley, who typically reimagines elaborate historical portraits with often ordinary African American subjects, depicted Barack Obama seated in a chair that seems to float amid a background of brightly colored vines and flowers with ties to different points in the former president’s life.
“I was present at two sittings that the president had with him,” said Caragol, who shepherded the realization of Obama’s portrait. “It was quite beautiful to watch their connection. I think they really identified with each other in many ways.”
Michelle Obama became aware of Amy Sherald when the artist won the Portrait Gallery’s triennial portrait competition in 2016 and included Sherald on her list of finalists. According to Moss, who oversaw the creation of the former First Lady’s portrait, when Sherald stepped through the Oval Office door for her interview, Obama immediately knew she was the right artist. “They had an instant connection, and they have remained friends. It was a kind of magical matching of sitter and artist,” Moss said.
The resulting portrait follows Sherald’s practice of making the sitter the center of attention with few other competing compositional elements. The First Lady is depicted with gray skin against a monochromatic sky-blue background. She is wearing a flowing, geometrically patterned dress that Moss said reminded the artist of the now-celebrated quilts created by artists in the Alabama hamlet of Gee’s Bend.
“Amy has always painted skin in a gray scale,” Moss said, “to both reference the history of portraiture and Amy’s interest in photography, especially photos of her family that were black and white, but also to remove race from being the focal point.”
The two artists have reinvented the form, said Jordan Carter, an associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Art Institute, and challenged notions of what a portrait, especially a presidential portrait could look like. “They are incredibly experimental, vibrant and uniquely powerful portraits that are nothing like anything that has come before,” he said.
In part, he said, their transformative takes were compelled by a recognition that portraiture has typically been the exclusive domain of people with economic and political power, and African Americans were rarely pictured.
Bringing the portraits to Chicago and the Art Institute only seems right, the curator said, because the city is where the Obamas met and began their careers, and their first official date took place at the museum.
“It’s a city where we really consider them our first couple in a way,” he said. “It’s really a homecoming for these portraits to be here and for the people in Chicago to be able to experience them on this very resonant ground, if you will.”
The portraits will be shown in the first-floor Abbott Galleries in the Art Institute’s Modern Wing, and Carter expects a big turnout. Perhaps more important, he said, museum officials hope these works draw many first-time visitors.
The idea is to offset any sense of exclusion that some people might have felt previously by practicing what Carter calls “radical hospitality.” As part of that effort, the museum has organized a series of self-guided tours of its collection that tie into the portraits, including an itinerary looking at some of the artists who were featured at the White House during the Obama years and another highlighting other diverse examples of portraiture, including a 2020 painting of Barack Obama by Jordan Casteel.
“So, there are various different strands and connections we are hoping to make,” Carter said, “and we want to make these first-time visitors return visitors.”