Portrait painting gets a bum rep. While the rest of painting continues to glide forwards, with angularity and expressionism, into the twentieth century, portrait painting is back there with petticoats and pocket watches: the stuff of another time, and of the now dead, white men who used to rule it.
The unveiling of Barack and Michelle Obama’s official portraits for the National Portrait Gallery disrupt this association: they are not only the portraits of the first black couple to sit in the White House, but the Obamas also chose black artists to paint the works, with a style that departs from the country-clubhouse norm of presidential portraits.
Kehinde Wiley, who painted Obama, is known for his refurbishment of the genre, mixing the classic portrait format – straightforward pose, unsmiling – against busy, brightly coloured backgrounds, often using West African patterns.
In the portrait Wiley painted, Obama is shown in a garden of sorts, with bright green flowers that cover the edges of his legs and arms, almost threatening to consume him. The ornately carved chair that the former president sits on is perhaps a recognition of the dual role that Obama has played, navigating between a black community and the trappings of power in the White House that historically excluded it.
Amy Sherald painted Michelle Obama as a glamour icon: a slightly curious role for a Princeton-educated lawyer that reflects the often unthreatening position Michelle Obama was at times forced to adopt. But it gets across the core of the Michelle Obama mystique: her sheer regal character. There she is, perched as upon a fashion-forward throne of her own making, with an inscrutable and yet approachable face.
Aside from the racial implications of the portraits’ breaks from tradition, there is another reason for the sudden interest in this serious and dignified pair: they are a reminder, for many around the world, of another sort of president before Donald Trump.