Behind the Portraits: The artists who painted the Obama’s Smithsonian portraits

Kehinde Wiley is a New York based artist who grew up in Los Angeles. Wiley’s works consist of large portraits of black and brown bodies. The complexity of Wiley’s work stems from the “juxtaposed inversion” of the subject and stylistic aesthetic for his portraits. Wiley started his career in portraiture by painting images of local men in harlem against bright textile backgrounds reminiscent of the 19th century portraiture; replacing historical figures in powerful poses with modern black and brown bodies.

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“Wiley’s figurative paintings and sculptures “quote historical sources and position young black men within the field of power.” His heroic paintings evoke a modern style instilling a unique and contemporary manner, awakening complex issues that many would prefer remain mute.” – Kehindewiley.com

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Wiley has also taken his portraiture global with his “The World Stage” works. These works have taken place in Haiti, Jamaica, France, Israel, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Lagos & Dakar, and China. Wiley also added female subjects into his repertoire, beginning with his “An Economy Of Grace” project. For these works, the female subjects were painted to represent historical portraits of women in society.

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Wiley has received his fair share of fame and acclaim in the art world, shown by his long list of exhibits, awards, and special projects, culminating in the spectacular task of painting President Barack Obama’s Smithsonian portrait. The portrait, unveiled on President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, depicts Obama sitting on an old-style arm chair, floating, and almost being engulfed by, a luscious garden background of ivy and tropical flowers. This portrait is very reminiscent of the famous portrait of Lincoln, painted by George P.A. Healy. Both men are positioned in solitude, no props aside from the chair they’re sitting on. As opposed to being surrounded by darkness, like Lincoln is, President Obama is surrounded by greenery, and looking straight out of the painting, allowing the viewer to make eye contact with President Obama.

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Amy Sherald is a Baltimore based portrait painter. Like Wiley, Sherald likes to play with historical contexts within her portraits of black bodies. Sherald, who received her MFA in art from Maryland Institute College of Art, states, in an Arts.gov interview, that the inspiration for her works stems from her wish to “paint things that [she] didn’t see within the art historical narrative”, to paint people who look like her.

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“I understand the importance of being represented at a cultural level and being able to see reflections of yourself, and society, and in culture. I basically paint people who I want to see exist in the world, but then I also want to creative a narrative that’s extricated from a dominant historical narrative.” – Amy Sherald 

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Something that Sherald stresses fervently in her works is her wish to present black peoples outside of their prescribed environments, and stereotypes. Sherald states that she “just wants [black people] to see that a more beautiful world exists beyond the confines of [their] environment”. Portraying black people as the focus of imaginative, and powerful portraits, effectively rewriting their portrayal throughout westernized art history.

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Sherald was the first female recipient of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2016, with her portrait “Miss everything” (pictured below). Sherald’s inspiration for this portrait stemmed from a vintage dress she found while shopping in a Baltimore neighbourhood called Hampden. Sherald states that she “had been thinking about Alice in Wonderland and thinking about these alternative narratives. That’s where the teacup is coming from—bending temporal space and thinking of yourself outside of how the world sees you”.

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Amy Sherald was chosen by Michelle Obama to paint her Smithsonian portrait. In Sherald’s speech, during the official portrait unveiling, she spoke on the inspiration behind Michelle Obama’s dress, designed by Michelle Smith on the label Milly: “Milly’s design also resembles the inspired quilt masterpieces made by the women of Gee’s Bend, a small remote black community in Alabama”. The portrait of Michelle Obama, by Amy Sherald, depicts Michelle Obama sitting in an exquisite halter dress, representing what Sherald deems as Michelle Obama’s  “authentic self…a profound statement that engaged all of us”.

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