By Alice Chaco and Adiyln Lee
On February 12th, 2018 the presidential portrait of Michelle Obama, painted by African-American artist Amy Sherald, was unveiled in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to the American public and world. Throughout American history, presidents and first ladies have honored the long-held tradition of sitting for portraits and holding a somewhat overlooked unveiling. However, this pattern changed with the recent debut of the Obamas’ portraits, which not only garnered mass media attention but also elicited strong reactions from people around the world. Michelle Obama’s stunning portrait especially went against the conventional ideas and portrayals of first ladies in an unexpected, fresh, and powerful way. Even before becoming the first lady, Obama established her successful career graduating from elite universities, serving in high profile jobs, and working as a lawyer in Chicago. While serving as the first lady, she proved to be an instrumental partner in the Obama legacy. As a mother, a feminist, and the first African American first lady, she advocated for the end of childhood obesity, support of military families, and became a champion of education for young girls. In painting the composed Michelle Obama on a light blue background, with a floor-length gown and a pensive pose, Sherald paints her subject as “the paradigm of a modern woman” (Quito). This bold and groundbreaking portrait of the former first lady not only highlights the accomplishments of African American women but it also serves as a symbol for generations of African American women to inspire. In addition to the aesthetic values of Michelle Obama’s portrait, her portrayal symbolizes the evolution of American culture since the days of slavery.
Historical and Cultural Context
The unveiling of these portraits amid Donald Trump’s second year in office presented the opportunity to reflect upon the Obama administration and their legacy in the wake of a new American leader. The Obamas were the first African American family to serve in the White House. During their time in office, they memorialized and revitalized sites central to the African-American experience which enhanced the meaning of what it meant to be an American. Months after leaving office, Barack and Michelle Obama commissioned Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively, to paint their presidential portraits. It was important for them to choose artists who could not only reflect the change they brought to America but who could also incorporate an homage to their roots. Michelle Obama, like millions of other African-Americans, had ancestors who were slaves. Because her portrait will be displayed among the most prominent presidents and first ladies—some of whom owned slaves themselves— the painting serves as a potent reminder for the accomplishments of an underserved and underappreciated group in America. The roles of African American women have changed over the course of American history and Michelle Obama is one of these trailblazers that has overcome the confines of racism, sexism, and economic inequality to achieve history-book success.
Michelle Obama expanded the roles of First Lady from serving at homeless shelters and soup kitchens, to creating the Let’s Move Campaign to combat childhood obesity. Additionally, regardless of her husband’s occupation, she is an accomplished woman. As a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, a writer, and a lawyer, Obama symbolizes feminism and the American desire for a reformed government that acknowledges the mistakes of its past. Her artist, “Sherald, faced an unprecedented and monumental task: to capture the first African American… first lady [whose portrait will be hung] in a building built by slaves” and her work “comments on race… in America that also provides an intimate encounter with the psyche of” the historic First Lady (Kennicott). The Obama legacy has shaped the US and illustrates the progression of the US since its days of African American enslavement and segregation. Still, the country struggles to kill off racism in the many forms that it takes today, but the Obama’s impact is monumental and long-lasting. “These portraits will remind future generations how much wish fulfillment was embodied in the Obamas, and how gracefully they bore that burden” (Kennicott).
Michelle Obama selected the up-and-coming artist, Amy Sherald, based on her vibrant background in contemporary art featuring African American portraitures that highlight social justice and the representation of African Americans. Sherald grew up in Columbus, Georgia where early-on she began “negotiating issues of race and identity in the American south as [a] major influence on her art” (National Museum of Women in The Arts). As Sherald’s work evolved, her art shifted from being more autobiographical in nature towards “content that offered a critical view of African American cultural history and the representation of the African American body” (National Museum of Women in The Arts). The Baltimore artist’s work now focuses on everyday African American men and women from different regions of America wearing everyday clothing and holding everyday poses. In doing so, Sherald makes powerful comments on the portrayal of African Americans in society while also emphasizing the narratives of everyday people growing up in American—breaking free from the stereotypes that are so heavily weighed upon them. In choosing Amy Sherald, Michelle Obama makes the conscientious decision to not only present herself in an artistic and avant-garde piece, but she also makes a statement about America today and how we all can all view her portrait in a different self-reflective light.
Themes and Style
This groundbreaking portrait attracts an audience that can extract meaningful symbols and messages that both Amy Sherald and Michelle Obama incorporated. All artists use their work to influence and reflect ideas of their own, which is why Michelle Obama’s artist has a unique position to send her own messages to the American people. Sherald’s style and thus, Michelle Obama’s portrait differs greatly from the style of traditional presidential portraits. In the past, presidents and first ladies were typically done as oil-on-canvas paintings with a monochromatic style. With a pensive, stoic, and intellectual pose in traditional attire, these previous portraits almost seemed to blend together. However, the Obama’s portraits represent a conscious break and departure from constricting presidential norms in a bold and powerful way.
The former first lady is illustrated with “a curious mix of confidence and vulnerability,” as art critic Philip Kenicott describes. With soft greys and subtle pops of colors, the portrait of Obama emphasizes the modern women that the public recognizes her to be. Showcasing the first lady’s famous arms expresses the quiet defiance to the first lady’s critics and emphasizes her unwavering sense of self. Obama’s arms were criticized for a time when serving as First Lady. Placing them defiantly on the front of the first lady’s torso near her calm and composed face, Obama defies her critics. Moreover, the former first lady’s grey skin tone also resembles the subjects of Amy Sherald’s many other paintings. This muddled skin tone is meant to draw awareness to how unimportant race is and how racism lives on in today’s society.
In addition to its soft palette, Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama also highlights the history of African Americans. For example, the dress of cotton fabric draws attention to the enslavement of African Americans and old Southern cotton plantations. Meanwhile, Obama’s dress pays homage to Southern African American quilters who inspired the geometric pattern. Illustrating the first African American First Lady of the United States in a dress with slave references and having the portrait hung in a building built by slaves, symbolizes how America is recognizing and moving past its history of slavery and racism. Furthermore, these references to America’s history of slavery highlights the progress that America has made to elect the first African American president. Additionally, the dress honors how Michelle Obama, as an African American woman and a descendant of slaves, has been able to have such a successful career, despite her challenges. Moreover, the dress illustrates the progress that America has made to place the first African American family in the White House but also recognizes the injustices and challenges they overcame to achieve success.
Furthermore, this illustration comments on how Michelle Obama had to rise above the fray of modern racism and sexism to continue the work that made her as accomplished as she is today. Throughout this portrait, Amy Sherald illustrates how Michelle Obama epitomizes a poised, respectable, and accomplished woman despite facing criticisms surrounding her race and gender. This groundbreaking portrait of the first African American first lady symbolizes the marking of a new era within American history and emphasizes how Michelle Obama fiercely redefined the roles of the first lady and the modern African American woman.
Michelle Obama’s portrait contains various references to slavery and her critics. Often critics of the portrait note these references and the symbolism of the painting, but other observers expected a more striking portrait to illustrate the first lady that they understood her to be. For example, New York Times writer, Holland Cotter, critiques, “I was anticipating — hoping for — a bolder, more incisive image of the strong-voiced person I imagine this former first lady to be”. Adversely, a Washington Post article entitled “The Obamas’ portraits are not what you’d expect, and that’s why they’re great” argues that Sherald uses a break from the traditional representation of American first ladies in portraits to emphasize her complexity and “the historic fact of [her] political rise.” Because Michelle Obama was such an intrepid and impactful leader as the first African American First Lady, these reviewers had high expectations that the portrait should match their bold perception of the first lady.
While some people fixate on their memory of the strong Michelle Obama, others see a different message in Michelle Obama’s portrait that does more than touch on her personal legacy, it focuses on a larger picture of the Afterlives of Slavery. After a man from Atlanta saw the photo of two-year-old Parker Curry standing in awe of the portrait (Figure 5), he tweeted that “This is what America is all about. This young girl can now dream about being someone like Michelle Obama”. Obama agrees. She hopes that her portrait will inspire “girls and girls of color” when they “see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of [that] great American institution [The Smithsonian]” (Obama).
Critics of Michelle Obama’s portrait also comment on the intricate use of colors, patterns, and body language to present the stunning Michelle Obama. Holland Cotter, the co-chief art critic of The New York Times, points out that the dress design is colorful and complicated with a mostly white background and strips of color throughout, most likely suggestive of African textiles. In addition, Cotter draws upon the mirroring between the image and Michelle Obama’s accomplished career and style. Sherald depicts the former first lady not only with “an element couturial spectacle, but also projects [her with] a rock-solid cool”, which contrasts with other critics who believe that Obama’s portrait does not illustrate the powerful person that she was. Historically, presidents have used their portraits to send their own message about the successes of their presidencies. For example, in the article “How Presidents Use Their Portraits to Shape Their Legacy”, Paul Staiti, a Professor of Fine Arts at Mount Holyoke College, discusses the importance of presidential portraitures and the stories they tell about a president’s legacy. Staiti opens with the idea that “[Although] the goal of the presidential portrait is commemorative, at a more ambitious level, it is political: to influence and, if possible, control posterity’s judgment of a president”. In his analysis of George Washington’s portraits, he describes how most of the first president’s portraits depict him as dignified and serious, because it was Washington’s lifelong quest was to be known as a leader of wisdom and prudence. Although this article was published before the debut of the Obama portraits, it leaves questions about how first ladies and presidents will use their portraits as opportunities to depict how they see themselves, as if the portrait were a book, an autobiography opposed to a biography. Obama took advantage of this opportunity to send a message of her own to the people of America about race and gender in America’s past, present, and future. Criticisms of Obama’s portrait whether positive, negative or neutral, allow a discussion on African American women in society today and how we all can inspire and empower future generations by recognizing the mistakes of America’s history of sexism and racism.
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