The National Portrait Gallery unveiled the official presidential likenesses of former US president Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama in a ceremony that was markedly different from those that went before
Normally, the unveiling of a former US president's portrait would pass relatively unnoticed in both the world of politics and art. In the past, the commissioned additions to the collection of presidential portraits have been so undistinguished that the event has become little more than ceremonial routine. This year's installation is markedly different, for two reasons. Firstly, the Obamas are the first African-American presidential couple to be enshrined. Secondly, the painters picked to portray them -- Kehinde Wiley for Mr Obama and Amy Sherald for Mrs Obama -- are also African-American. In addition, Wiley is the first openly LGBTQ+ artist to create an official presidential portrait for the Smithsonian Institute.
The National Portrait Gallery collection was created by an Act of Congress in 1962 and opened to the public in 1968. It is the only place outside the White House that has a complete collection of presidential portraits, from George Washington to Barack Obama. The collection of First Lady portraits is still incomplete - the commissioning of new ones started only in 2006.
'Uninflected' dignity was the attitude of choice for well over a century, with only a few breaks from tradition, such as the Obama portraits. These departures from the norm include:
In an 1836 portrait, Andrew Jackson, a demonstrative bully, sports a floor-length, red-silk-lined Dracula cloak and a kind of topiary bouffant hairstyle
Gilbert Stuart's so-called "Lansdowne Portrait" of George Washington, dating from 1796, is a full-length likeness packed with executive paraphernalia: papers to be signed, multiple quill pens, a sword and an Imperial Roman-style chair
The 42nd president, Bill Clinton, was painted by Chuck Close in the artist's signature mosaic-like painting technique. Many felt it made the former president look like a pixelated clown.
At about seven feet tall, the scale of the Barak Obama portrait is imposing. The artist presents Mr Obama dressed in the regulation black suit and an open-necked white shirt, seated on a vaguely throne-like chair not that different from the chair in Stuart's Washington portrait. Mr Obama sits tensely forward, frowning, elbows on his knees, arms crossed, as if listening hard. No smiles, no Mr Nice Guy. He is still troubleshooting, still in the game. He is ensconced in flowers that have symbolic meaning: the African blue lilies represent Kenya, jasmine represents his birthplace, Hawaii, and chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago, where his political career began and where he met his wife.
|Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald|
As gracious as Michele Obama's reaction was, social media went to war over whether the portrait looked anything like the former First Lady. The verdict varied, but the main theme was that the portrait did not live up to its subject.
While Mr Obama's portrait will be installed, long term, among those of his peers, Mrs Obama's will hang in a corridor reserved for temporary displays of new acquisitions, on the first floor of the Smithsonian. It will stay there until November, after which no definite home has yet been selected.