Portraits are a tricky subject. So much of what makes a portrait successful has to do with the interplay between viewer and subject. A portrait of someone you’ve never seen before can be easily judged on the merits of its composition alone, while any recognition at all of the subject immediately brings to bear upon the viewing the viewer’s previous knowledge, which necessarily factors in to any judgement as to whether or not the portrait in question is any good. One needs no more evidence than the continued obsession with answering the question of who, biographically, the Mona Lisa was, to understand that a large part of the awe she inspires has to do with her anonymity. Because we don’t know anything about her, we’re free to project onto the lady pretty much whatever we’d like. Because we have only the one example from her catalog of facial expressions, presumably as extensive as the average person’s, we’re able to call her legendary gaze unreadable, intractable. If we knew her, we might know that it is simply the look she gives when she’s tired, or when her children are bugging her, or when she wants to go to bed with her husband. That is, despite its reputation as being so, it’s not really that her look her is unreadable, it’s that we can’t read it. Conversely, the more familiar we are with the subject–the more exposure we have to the subject, especially when that exposure is not quite to the subject itself but rather to the subject as image, which is for most of us the nature of our exposure to famous people–the less likely we are to project anything onto it except what we know to be true.
There are few Americans whose likenesses are as well-known as those of Barack and Michelle Obama, the former President and First Lady of the United States of America. When you make history by becoming the first Black President, you’re bound to get a little press. And few presidents have proven themselves as adept at maneuvering in the media so skillfully–and few first ladies have been so spectacularly up to the task–as these two. Aside from the the sort public appearances that typify most American presidencies–news briefings, public addresses, state dinners, generally being in the news–the Obamas were (and remain, even though they’ve left the White House) frequent guests on talk shows and sketch comedies, and made regular fodder for all manner of blog and magazine outlets. As such, we’ve become uniquely attuned to images of the couple, together and separate. To say that we know what they look like is, I think, a vast understatement; what’s true about people with famous faces is that although you’ve never actually seen them (IRL), you could pick them out of a crowd. The acquaintance is visual, and intimate. This is doubly true in the Internet age, when images of famous people are endlessly redistributed over a range of social media, their various reactions and mannerisms recycled, in memes and gifs, for applicability to a myriad of contexts.
I suspect this has a lot to do with the uproar on certain parts of Twitter over the new portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, which were revealed on Monday. Although no one usually cares about such things–the last time “president” and “portrait” were together in an interesting sentence was a few years ago, when Dubya picked up a brush and committed to his canvas a bathroom selfie–the unveiling of these portraits was notable because they are the first portraits of the first Black President and the first Black First Lady to hang in the gallery, and because the Smithsonian made the wise decision of tasking the portraiture to two African American artists. What mostly made news, however, were complaints that the portrait of Michelle Obama bore little likeness to the image of Michelle Obama we recognize.
Mrs. Obama’s portrait, painted by Amy Sherald, is stunning. Perhaps it doesn’t look exactly like her–I suppose that’s ultimately debatable. The portrait does, however, capture the woman’s essence–her effortlessly regal demeanor, but also her warmth and charm; her humility, but also her gravitas. Michelle Obama is always the woman in the room you most want to talk to, and also the one to whom you are most terrified to speak. So is the woman in the portrait. Perched almost jauntily, with her legs crossed, one hand drawn up to support her chin, she surveys the viewer seriously, her face neither inviting nor standoffish, neither promising or expecting anything. She is neither passive nor engaged. Indeed, it’s something of a triumph that, despite our deep knowledge of what Michelle Obama looks like, Sherald is able to imbue her with something of Mona Lisa’s illegible expression. We’ve seen her smiling, laughing, rolling her eyes, even grimacing. Yet here, her gaze does approach the cacographic, going somewhere past you, the viewer, even as it seems not to exclude you, somehow.
There is, however, another sense in which the Mrs. Obama of Sherald’s portrait is immediately recognizable, and that is Michelle as Fashionista, she who stunned in a custom Brandon Maxwell gown at the 2016 White House State Dinner and Oscar de la Renta for a visit with the Queen of England that same year. More than anything, the portrait references Michelle The Glamazon, draped in a halter-neck gown that does not evoke any specific dress worn by Mrs. Obama so much as it suggests, with its incongruent geometric patterning, its intermittent stripes of color, the utter grandness of its flowing skirt, the high-fashion ethos that informed so much her wardrobe during her years in the White House.
The grayscale effect of the painting is a mistake. It’s a mistake because it muddies Mrs. Obama’s vibrancy. Through that icky gray her tone comes across sickly and pale, her skin a gray, dry version of its real-life always moisturized, ebony hue. It’s hard not to imagine what the effect of Mrs. Obama’s dark skin against the truly lovely blue Sherald has chosen as her background color might have looked like, were it not for the grayscale; instead, the contrast is bland and unappealing, a tepid brown whited out by the gray. Even so, this error detracts only slightly from the portrait’s overall arresting quality.
Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Obama is somewhat more successful. In it, he is seated on a wooden chair upholstered in red while the leaves and flowers of a large plant threaten to overtake him. In the portrait, Mr. Obama is slightly leaned forward, his arms crossed at the wrists, his left hand grasping the crook of his right elbow while his right hand rests open on his left knee. There is no trace of Mona Lisa’s (or, for that matter, his wife’s) impenetrability in his expression: we know exactly what the man is thinking, or at least we can imagine to our satisfaction that we do. His years in office have wizened him–the graying hair and all of that–yet they have also enlightened him, and enlightenment is sometimes heavy. Surely, Obama’s enlightenment must be polished by everything he’s achieved and burnished, however slightly, by what he did not. It is the portrait of a man with Barack Obama’s legacy: the first Black President, the fabled game changer, that glorious tipping point.
It is not hard to remember the prospect of an Obama presidency when it wasn’t yet a thing, or even when it was still new; what such a thing could mean for America, the progress it portended. To be an American seeing a Black man get elected to the highest office in the land–to see his Black wife and their Black daughters in the White House, and know they were living there–felt as tremendous and historic as it was, and it was easy to believe that it represented a fundamental shift in our national reckoning with race. Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s hard to be equivocal about such matters. It seems fair to say that, in terms of what is possible for Black people to achieve in America, yes, Obama’s presidency changed things. However, it is also true that his presidency ran parallel to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland. The expression on the face of the man in the portrait contains that dichotomy, which is a similar dichotomy to the one which arises when one considers that it was the fact of a Black American president that in many ways stoked the hate and racism that elected the current administration. The man’s expression asks, as so many of us have been, “How are we electing Black men to the presidency but also shooting them dead in the streets?” and it asks, “How have we gone from there”–there being ’08, or even ’12–“to here?”
I don’t know about the foliage that makes up the background (and some of the foreground) of Wiley’s portrait. I do appreciate the bursts of purple and orange and yellow blooms here and there, but this may be because they play into my understanding of Mr. Obama growing up in Hawaii. Still, the way the ivy-like plants grown around his feet and encroach upon his shoulder seem silly to me–a little corny, even. What is it supposed to mean? Is the President emerging from the plant as if from the jungle, thereby linking the modern Black American to his pre-diasporic history? Or is the jungle taking him back? I don’t know what to make of it. Like the grayscale effect in Sherald’s portrait, though to a somewhat lesser degree, I just don’t get it.
It is often more important what a piece of art represents than how well the art represents it. These portraits will ostensibly hang in the National Portrait Gallery for as long the building stands, a constant tribute to the indomitable spirit of Black America and to America’s unique, sometimes contradictory capacity for reinvention. This thought comforts me, as we barrel through a presidency that every day proves itself more horrifying than we could have imagined. Looking at the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, which are not perfect portraits, as their subjects are not perfect, I’m reminded of the joy and wonder I felt at the beginning of the Obama Era, the faith I had then that America could truly be “the land of the free,” a place where liberty and justice truly were extended to all. That this is a belief that grows more ragged with each passing day only proves how necessary it is to hold on to. These portraits represent a small tightening of that grasp.