That Portrait of Michelle Obama

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018, Amy Sherald, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Michelle and Barack Obama’s portraits were unveiled only a few days ago and, as one might expect, there was an immediate reaction. There were those partisan and racist tweets (why not — what else do these people have to do?). But, there were also reactions to the artworks and to the artists who painted them.

There are similarities between the way Amy Sherald constructed Michelle Obama’s image and the way Keinde Wiley painted Barack Obama. In their larger body of work, each shows a Black American in front of a field of color. Sherald’s is often undifferentiated (sometimes she adds a subtle texture in that color field). While Wiley’s is often a bright pattern, filled with activity. Both are playing with dimensionality. Sherald’s figures seem pasted to the background. The subtle grays she uses to paint each person’s skin further enhances that flatness. Wiley’s figures seem to challenge the background for prominence. While there is never a shadow cast by his figures, the resonance between the foreground and background emphasizes the space between them. His figures are never neutral. They are active and even noble. Sherald’s are much more sedate, as if they were snapshots of everyday people from any time during the last century. I am reminded of William H. Johnson’s work

Top: Lighting Michelle Obama’s Portrait. Bottom: Lighting Barack Obama’s Portrait, © 2018 Jeff Gates

The purpose of the Obamas’ portraits isn’t to depict their likenesses as much as it is to convey their essence during the period they lived in the White House. And, as we all know, those were not ordinary times. The first Black President. I was so proud after his election. I was completely oblivious to the racism that would surface during his years in office and beyond. And, so both images look very different than the traditional portraits of other Presidents and First Ladies. How could they not? Hanging in the same “America’s Presidents” gallery at the Portrait Gallery is Elaine de Kooning’s portrait of John F. Kennedy. It, too, looks very different than other presidential portraits. De Kooning’s painting is as much about the fearful, frenetic, and, yet, hopeful early 1960s as the Obamas’ portraits are of our time.

Most of the informal art criticism has focused on Amy Sherald’s portrait of Mrs. Obama. Many complain “it doesn’t look like her.” But, a portrait is not a photograph (and even photographs are not direct representations of our reality). I was surprised when they unveiled Mrs. Obama’s image. Like most, I was watching the ceremony on a live feed. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that. But, before I made a judgment, I wanted to see the image first hand — to look closely at it and compare it to Sherald’s other work. I got that chance. The morning after the unveilings I was at the National Portrait Gallery, as technicians put the finishing touches on the lighting before the museum opened. I got close. Are Barack’s eyes really a light brown? And, his left hand seems oversized. I looked at Michelle’s face. It doesn’t look quite like her as I knew her (as any of us citizens knew her). Her features were simple. And, her left arm was quite elongated. I wondered what that meant. Some assumed Sherald was an untrained “outsider artist.” Yet, looking at her other portraits there is nothing simple or “naïve” about them. It took me a few days to absorb the work and decide what I thought.

The Make Believer (Monet’s Garden), Amy Sherald, 2016

I am not enamored by the formal aspects of the painting. My eyes aren’t drawn to anything. The dress is the most prominent element in Obama’s portrait. Its triangular shape moves your eyes upward. But, when I get to Obama’s face, I continue moving into the pale blue background without much hesitation. Michelle’s face is secondary, and that may be what disturbs others. I tried to understand Sherald’s intention. But, all I had to go on was her other work; and when I compare this piece to her other portraits, I was disappointed. In her other paintings, the figure is cohesive. It lays flat against the background, but it is distinct, in part because of the bright colors Sherald uses to describe the person’s clothes and the contrast of her subjects’ gray skin against those colors. But, in Obama’s portrait, the entire palette is much more muted (except for small portions of the dress). From a content perspective, she seems devoid of the specialness of the times. There are no clues. The dress, as Sherald described, does provide some context. It was one of Obama’s favorite gowns and its pattern reminded the artist of Mondrian and the quilts made by the women from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. But, that’s not enough for me.

Then it hit me. This isn’t my portrait. I am not African American. I didn’t live in the White House. I didn’t paint it. My experience of the times is very different than either Michelle Obama’s or Amy Sherald’s.

This is the thing about art. What you see are the vestiges of the creative process. That process is over and this painting is all that’s left. Some work does stand on its own. But, not always. Understanding context is often critical to the art. After all, it wasn’t made in a vacuum. I know this because I’m an artist. I enjoy the gratification I get from showing my work to others. But, by the time I do, I’m already wrapped around another work and another creative process (which is the best part of art). And, I rarely talk to anyone about that process while it’s happening. Even more intriguing, there were two people involved in the making of this work. And, it’s clear Obama and Sherald talked about the First Lady’s expectations and what developed as Sherald painted.

To appreciate Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama, I want to know what they talked about. I want to know that context. I want to experience that experience along with them. I want to know what it was like to be the first African American First Lady. Without that, I can only have a limited understanding and appreciation for this work.

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