The date of the Obama portraits’ unveiling, deliberately chosen by Barack Obama, was February 12, Lincoln’s birthday. The 44th president made no secret that he admired the 16th. He launched his presidential campaign in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois; held the Lincoln Bible at his swearing-in; and often remarked that Lincoln’s abolition of slavery had made his presidency possible. Like Lincoln, the first president to savvily use photography of himself to connect with the American people, Obama’s presidency had been marked by an understanding of the power of portraiture.
Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, the artists the Obamas chose, were the first African Americans to paint the portraits of a president or first lady for the National Portrait Gallery, and from the moment of the unveiling, it was clear that the two had both borrowed from and broken with the canon of traditional
. Wiley chose to seat the president in a chair, wearing a suit but no tie, looking directly out of the canvas at the viewer. The pose is similar to that of George Peter Alexander Healy’s Abraham Lincoln, ’s
John F. Kennedy, and Robert Anderson’s George W. Bush, all portraits Wiley had seen on walks through the galleries. But it was the background of rampant foliage and flowers symbolizing periods of the president’s life—chrysanthemums for Chicago, jasmine for Hawai‘i and Indonesia, African lilies for Kenya, and rosebuds for love—that was so extraordinary, making Obama appear at once timeless and contemporary.
The portrait of Michelle Obama elicited more commentary. Attired in a geometrically patterned dress by the designer Michelle Smith, which reminded the artist of modernist art and
quilts created by the descendants of enslaved people, the former first lady was presented as both modern and historical. The rendering of her skin as gray, as the New York Times
art critic Roberta Smith wrote
, “introduces the notion of double consciousness, the phrase coined by W.E.B. Du Bois to describe the condition of anyone living with social and economic inequality.” Or, as the critic Antwaun Sargent noted
more succinctly in W
magazine, what viewers were witnessing were “visions of black power [shaking] up a gallery of white history.”