Presidential Portraits

On February 12th, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s portraits were unveiled at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.  Alongside former presidents, these new portraits are less conventional and this has sparked mixed feedback.  Here are some presidential portraits in the gallery, including those of Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Washington.







Now, here are the recently installed portraits of the Obamas.

There are some large noticeable differences between the Obama portraits and those of other past presidents.  While there are no requirements for posing, colors, or style of these portraits, as the Presidents choose their own painters, it seems the Obamas have decided to break the “mold.” “The juxtaposition of contemporary urban culture with centuries-old postures and wallpaper-like backgrounds make for bold paintings, of which Obama’s is Wiley’s most famous to date” (Bennett

Mr. Obama chose painter Kehinde Wiley from New York City to create his floral piece.  “Wiley’s naturalistic portraits often address the portrayal of young African-American men in contemporary culture. During the unveiling, Obama he said he admired how the artist’s work “challenge our conventional views of power and privilege” (Wolfe  Mrs. Obama also chose an artist with social motivations, Amy Sherald from Baltimore, who paints African Americans in gray scale.  While Wiley and Sherald may paint for similar reasons, their styles are vastly different.

Wiley chose to create a realistic portrait of Barack Obama and would not even make his ears smaller or paint less gray hair, as requested by the President.  His background choice contrasts the realism of the piece, adding a whimsical touch to an otherwise stern face.  There is an oddity about the leaves towards the bottom of the chair, which seem more three-dimensional than the wallpaper-like leaves behind the President.  This detail aside, I enjoy the uniqueness of this piece, although it does not necessarily scream President of the United States.  I think it captures our former President’s confidence but not arrogance.  His position on the chair, leaning forward with arms crossed, also expresses an eagerness to listen.  However, I do not think Mrs. Obama’s portrait was as effective.

Unlike Wiley, Sherald chose a pale blue background, which allows Michelle Obama’s dress to take center stage.  Comprised of geometric shapes, reminiscent of paintings in the Museum of Modern Art, the dress almost takes over the image.  I am also unsure whether Mrs. Obama’s face is unnaturally small in contrast to her body or whether her face seems this way due to a bottom-up perspective.  Unlike the President’s portrait, my vision scans the image from the base of the dress to the top of Mrs. Obama’s head, almost as if I were laying down on the floor.  One point of contention may be with Mrs. Obama’s skin tone; however, I happen to admire Sherald’s artistic choice, which happens to be a motif in her paintings of other African Americans.  “The Baltimore Sun reported that during a talk at Johns Hopkins University, Sherald said: ‘Gray makes the paintings work. But it’s also a way for me to subversively comment about race without feeling as though I’m excluding the viewer’” (Wolfe  While I do not find issue in the gray scale, I do wonder how much the portrait represents Mrs. Obama.  There is a flatness to the painting, due to color and lack of detail, that decreases my interest.  On the contrary, the position of her arms on her lap and the angle of her head express confidence and grace, complimenting the portrait of her husband.

Although I have mixed opinions about these portraits, I do think they are effective at stimulating important questions, including how and what the President of the United States should represent.  They also reveal our expectations for Presidents and the effect of breaking tradition.


Wolfe, Rachel. “The Obamas’ Just Un-Veiled Presidential Portraits Are Unlike Any Before Them.” Vox, Accessed 18 Feb. 2018.

Bennett, Kate. “Obamas Official Portraits Unveiled.” CNN, Accessed 18 Feb. 2018.

-Stephanie Montalti

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