Barack Obama, Michelle: What their portraits say about them and their artists
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WASHINGTON — For the next few hundred years, the hipster portraits of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle, unveiled Monday at the National Portrait Gallery, will be much analyzed — especially the painting of Michelle.
But here’s what I know today: The Obamas love their portraits because they fell for the artists they picked to portray them, African-Americans who interpreted for the ages the nation’s first black president and first lady.
At the Gallery unveiling ceremony — doubling as an Obama team reunion complete with former Vice President Joe Biden — the Obamas talked about the stories of artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald as much as their paintings.
“The ability to be first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming. It doesn’t get any better than that,” Wiley said in his remarks after Obama pulled the cloth off the oil-on-canvas work.
Obama is painted on a chair floating on a backdrop of green leaves and flowers — including chrysanthemums, since 1966 the official flower of Chicago. Other petals represent Hawaii and Kenya, the other geographical touchstones in the life of the 44th president.
Wiley and Sherald are the first African-Americans to be commissioned by the gallery, a Smithsonian Institution, to paint official portraits. They are both known for their depictions of African-Americans.
MICHELLE ON HER PORTRAIT
Mrs. Obama said she had an instant “sister girl” bond when she met Sherald for her White House interview when Obama was still the president. She was “hip” and “cool,” Mrs. Obama said.
Now I know — because it’s blown up on social media — that there is a lot of discussion of Sherald’s oil on linen work. The painting doesn’t look like Mrs. Obama.
This might be more an ephemeral than profound matter because there are millions of photos of Mrs. Obama that will exist forever. What Mrs. Obama really looks like will never be in dispute. What may count for future generations is how Mrs. Obama is represented in her portrait.
The Sherald picture captures Mrs. Obama’s vibe. She painted Mrs. Obama in a Milly gown by designer Michael Smith, a close Obama pal.
Mrs. Obama said she was thinking “about all of the young people, particularly girls and girls of color who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution.”
“And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls,” said Mrs. Obama, raised on Chicago’s South Side.
She also talked about her grandparents, now deceased, Purnell Shields, nicknamed “South Side,” his wife, Rebecca, plus Fraser and LaVaughn Robinson.
They were “intelligent, highly capable men and women . . . but their dreams and aspirations were limited because of the color of their skin,” Mrs. Obama said.
BARACK ON HIS PORTRAIT
Obama said he related to Wiley in part because they both had American mothers and fathers from Africa.
Obama said Wiley’s portraits “challenged our conventional views of power and privilege . . . in recognizing the beauty and the grace and the dignity of people who are often invisible in our lives.
“. . . Kehinde lifted them up and gave them a platform . . . and that was something that moved me deeply.”
MORE TO KNOW
Gayle King, the “CBS This Morning” co-host, told me the Obamas had an earlier preview of their portraits. “Neither one of them” wanted to see the paintings for the first time at the unveiling. They “loved” the paintings.
The paintings and related costs ran to $500,000, a Gallery spokesman said. Among the big donors: Steven Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw, who were there.
Also spotted: Tom Hanks and a lot of former Obama White House staffers.
Second bite: The Obamas’ will at some point have official portraits in the White House; no artists picked yet. This handled by the White House Historical Association.
Noteworthy timing: The unveilings come during Black History Month; on Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, and on the 11th anniversary of when Obama declared his run for the presidency in Springfield on Feb. 10, 2007.