Liberal Arts Blog — Barack and Michelle (Part II): The National Portrait Gallery

Liberal Arts Blog — Friday is the Joy of Art, Architecture, Design, Film, and All Things Visual Day

Today’s Topic: Barack and Michelle (Part II): The National Portrait Gallery

Two weeks ago, the White House portraits. Today, the sequel. Have you been to the MFA to see the “Obama Portraits Tour”? If not, I highly recommend it. The portraits will be there until October 30th. The portrait of Barack is by Kehinde Wiley and that of Michelle is by Amy Sherald. From the website: “Wiley and Sherald are the first African Americans commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to create official portraits of a president and first lady. Their distinctive artistic visions are rooted in the tradition of American portraiture but committed to making space for people of color. Through their portraits, which are at once extraordinary and approachable, audiences can see themselves in President Obama and the former First Lady.” So what do you think? Are you partial to the White House portraits or the National Portrait Gallery ones? why? Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

THE KEHINDE WILEY PORTRAIT OF BARACK OBAMA (excerpts from wikipedia article plus a personal opinion)

1. “The background foliage combines the chyrsanthemum (the official flower of Chicago), jasmine (symbolic of Hawaii where the president spent most of his childhood, and African blue lilies (alluding to the president’s late Kenyan father).”

2. “Obama is wearing a 39 mm White Gold Rolex Cellini watch which he has chosen to wear on multiple high profile occasions, including the inauguration of President Biden.”

3. “Reacting to the unveiling of his portrait, Obama said: “How about that? That’s pretty sharp.”

NB: “The Washington Post described the painting as “not what you’d expect and that’s why it’s great.” Personally, I much prefer the White House portrait. The bright foliage is too much of a distraction.


1. The contrast with her husband’s portrait is striking: the blue and the gray versus the brown and the green.

2. The portraits do share black and white.

3. “Of the choice to use grayscale instead of color in painting skin, Sherald said the intention was to resist reductive readings of race that placed the sitter in a box: “To me when you see brown skin, it tends to codify something. So through the gray you’re almost allowed to look past that into the real person.”

NB: “The background is a simple blue evoking American folk art.”


1. “In 2016, Sherald became the first woman as well as the first African American ever to win the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition with her painting, Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance).” (See above)

2. “Lack of brown skin may at first feel like a loss but very soon becomes a real gain” (Doreen St. Felix, New Yorker) Agree? Disagree?

3. “In a number of his paintings, Wiley inserts black protagonists into Old Master paintings. In 2007 he reimagined Théodore Géricault’s early-nineteenth-century The Charging Chasseur with a young black man in casual streetwear as the sword-wielding hussar in his painting Officer of the Hussars. Similarly, his Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005) is based on Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800) by Jacques-Louis David…Wiley restaged it with an African rider wearing modern army fatigues and a bandanna.”

NB: In 2020, a Sherald painting, The Bathers (see below), sold for $4.2 million. In 2021 another, Welfare Queen, sold for $3.9 million. Nine years before that Sherald had been waiting tables.

The Obama Portraits Tour

The Shifting Perspective in Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of Barack Obama

First Lady Michelle Obama (painting) — Wikipedia

The Recent Sale of Amy Sherald’s ‘Welfare Queen’ Symbolizes the Urgent Need for Resale Royalties and Economic Equity for Artists | Artnet News

Quote of the Month:

“The single biggest challenge in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” (William H. Whyte, author of The Organization Man” (1856)


PDF with headlines — Google Drive


#1 A graphic guide to justice (9 metaphors on one page).

#2 “39 Songs, Prayers, and Poems: the Keys to the Hearts of Seven Billion People” — Adams House Senior Common Room Presentation, 11/17/20


Please share the coolest thing you learned recently or ever related to art, sculpture, design, architecture, film, or anything visual.

This is your chance to make some one else’s day. And to cement in your own memory something cool or important you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than you otherwise would about something that is close to your heart.


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