Unveiled in 2018, the official state portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have been a large draw in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. The Gallery, part of the Smithsonian, saw nearly twice as many visitors than expected the first year the two portraits hung in their halls. For many, the two paintings mean something intimately special and long overdue–the first Black President and First Lady, painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, the first Black artists to do White House portraits.
Chicago won first dibs at the request of the Obamas, who called that city home. The Art Institute of Chicago was the site of their first date, according to Michelle’s memoir Becoming. Here, for the first time, the Obama portraits will be shown side by side, angled slightly toward one another, united–as their subjects have been for more than thirty years.
Wiley’s portrait of the 44th President is both traditional and a departure from the conformation of Presidential portraits. Like many of the others, President Obama is seated in an ornate wooden chair, wearing a dark suit and a white shirt, his gaze direct in oil and pigment. But instead of a staid office or a study filled with symbolic props, this president is set in a lush background of vivid foliage and flowers representing the travels of his life. It brings to mind Frida Kahlo or Kerry Marshall.
Sherald, who was considered for both portraits, was a fan of Michelle Obama long before she met her. Her life-sized, nearly monochromatic portrait of the first lady mixed pop-art minimalism with a very traditional pose. She painted her in her trademark gray scale – a nod to the black and white photography that documented so much of Black American history.
The Obama portraits will be on display in the Art Institute of Chicago from June 18 to August 15. Expect long wait times.
Image: Matt Smith Photographer / Shutterstock.com