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on February 13, 2018

This Presidential Portraits Have Just Made History!

The official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama are in — and they aren’t quite like anything else in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. View the portraits here.

Official presidential portraits tend to focus heavily on their subjects’ dignity: The presidents stand tall in tailored suits, gazing out into posterity and official portraits of former first ladies tend to be idealized and domestic. But the Obamas chose two of the hottest young artists in portraiture for their official paintings, and it shows.

Kehinde Wiley, the painter behind Barack Obama’s portrait portrays black bodies in the heroic poses of some of the most famous portraits in the Western canon. By placing black bodies in poses historically designed to demonstrate wealth, strength, and opulence, Wiley is redistributing the aesthetic power of art.

With his Obama portrait, Wiley moves away from a literal reimagining of a specific painting. Obama’s chair bears a certain resemblance to the chair in Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portrait of George Washington and his hunched-over, thoughtful pose echoes the lines of Rodin’s Thinker. But the forceful, engaged expression is specific to Obama, and so is the iconography around him (the blue flowers are for Kenya, the jasmine for Hawaii, and the chrysanthemums for Chicago, per Cotter). It has the aesthetic effect of a baroque portrait, but all the signifiers are vital and original.

Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait, tends to paint black subjects, usually in grayscale in front of a color-saturated background, in clothes she chooses carefully for each subject. The gray skin lets Sherald “omit” skin color from her paintings entirely, she says, separating race from color and allowing her subjects to hover in the liminal space between reality and dreamworld.

In the portrait, Michelle Obama reclines against a gray-tinted blue background, in what looks like a nod to the time she shook the 2012 Democratic National Convention by showing up with blue-gray nails. She’s wearing a geometric printed gown by Milly, which evokes the geometric quilts made by black artists of the remote Alabama community.

Paired together, the two portraits are immensely striking: Not only are they both unusually active for this kind of portrait, but they give off a palpable sense of intelligence, directness, and — perhaps more than anything else — cool. They’re portraits whose subjects care about aesthetics, who are thoughtful about the history of portraiture, and who have the personal charisma to carry the weight of that history on themselves.

Which is important, because history is going to weigh heavily on the portraits of the first black president and first lady, painted by the first black artists commissioned to make the official presidential portraits.

In Barack’ s own words, ‘this two works upend the notion that there are worlds where African Americans belong and worlds where we don’t. And that’s something Michelle and I hope we contributed to over the eight years we were so privileged to serve you from the White House. They’ll walk out of that museum (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery) with a better sense of the America we all love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Inclusive and optimistic. And I hope they’ll walk out more empowered to go and change their worlds’.

Sources: Vox, Obama.org