The Obama Portraits

Michelle and Barack Obama have chosen the artists that they want to paint their official Presidential portraits and they are incredible. These two portraits are going to look like objects from another planet alongside all the other Presidential portraits. They will be the painted equivalent of the moment when Dorothy steps into a dazzlingly colourful Oz and the world before seems grayscale in comparison.

I read about the importance of their choices in a great New York Times article last week and then just got around to looking up the two portrait artists Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley last night.

Having spent some time looking at the work of both artists, I was really excited to see that besides the fact they use bright colours (very different from the majority of previous Presidential portraits that play it safe with a sombre ‘dignified’ palette), both painters play with traditional power structure by elevating ‘ordinary’ subjects through their portraits. As the Times article points out, it is going to be fascinating to see how these two artists approach two such powerful, beloved and unconventional figures as the Obamas.

Michelle Obama’s choice- Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald is a Georgia born Baltimore artist whose career is just starting to gain momentum. Last year saw her showing her first solo show at Monique Meloche’s Chicago gallery and winning the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, which led to her being entered last minute into the portfolio of artists presented to Mrs Obama.

Amy’s story is inspiring and a great reminder of the power of determination as she’s continued painting for decades despite congenital heart disease, a heart transplant at 39 and losing both her father and brother to illness within a few years of each other.

Read more about her here and look through her amazing work on her site here. Two of my favourites below.

Barack Obama’s choice- Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley is from LA originally and is now based in NY. He paints huge discombobulating portraits filled with colour and pattern and at 36, already has a critical and commercial following.

He has an interesting bio and Q&A on his own site but it’s the excellent long GQ profile on him from 2013 that I would urge you to read.

I can imagine how Amy Sherald might paint Michelle Obama but I am not sure how Kehinde Wiley is going to tackle Barack. Will he place him against an ornate patterned background as he usually does? Or will he focus the attention on his famous subject by toning down the backdrop?

I would love to hear the conversations between Obama and Wiley about the portrait. Someone better be writing a piece about the whole process.

Read more about him here and about his controversial use of cheaper assistant work in China here.

See more of his work on his site here.

Kehinde Wiley art portrait
George Washington Gilbert portrait art Athenaeum

I also read about the tradition of Presidential portraits, and, as you might guess, George Washington was the first President to have an official portrait. The portraitist Gilbert Stuart ended up painting a series of paintings of the President in fact. One of these, his most famous and recognisable, he began in 1796 and never finished, although he made a lot of many selling copies of the unfinished work. Called The Athenaeum, this painting of Washington’s head and shoulders will be familiar to you as the basis for the one dollar bill.

Another of his paintings of Washington, The Lansdowne portrait, had to be rescued from the White House by First Lady Dolley Madison and Paul Jennings, one of James Madison’s slaves, when the building was attacked and burnt down by the British in the War of 1812.

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