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Art Analysis from an Art Student

The Official White House Portraits of the Obamas

Disclaimer: The photo used is not mine and belongs to the respected artists of Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley


When I reminisce about the years of 2008-2016, I realized that a lot of events happened. Movie stars, writers, artists came and went. I narrowed it down to events in my own life that happened. I graduated high school, I graduated my undergrad, and I became a graduate in that time. Romances for me were discovered and I lost many. I gained more strength in my artwork and my writing. 

In the span of that time, the nation elected the first African-American president to guide people in leadership. It felt soothing and calming during those years as it felt like change happened. Earlier this month, the Obamas revealed their official White House paintings. 

Now as art, it was expected to stir and get people talking. Positive comments were gained from the unveiling and negative comments. Most people are not artists and most people did not go to school majoring in Studio Art. I will examine both portraits of the First Lady and the former President in a critical review. I will start with the lady first.

The Official Portrait of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald

The portrait shows former First Lady Michelle Obama seated and dressed in a Michelle Smith dress. She is against a light blue background. She is also shown in the style of the artist showing her in a gray toned style. The portrait of Michelle Obama first needs background because a lot of people question why her skin color was made in the grayscale. 

Artist Amy Sherald’s paintings show a theme of the gray-scale skin in her past painting showing African American and showing her own autobiography being an African American woman. Her mantra is going against the concept of color as race. This shows a sense of being united as well as saying color is not just about the color of your skin. Think of this as viewing race as an invented concept and limiting, color is universal and loved. Michelle Obama wanted to show this through herself and the reason why she chose Sherald.

The dress she wears as I stated was inspired by a Michelle Smith dress. The dress was created by Smith quoted as saying, “desire for equality, equality in human rights, racial equality, LGBTQ equality.” 

Michelle wanted to convey that there is still a need for people to reach those concepts. The former First Lady has become a fashion icon being compared to Jacqueline Kennedy. This is what will stick with her as move on to the future.

“I’m thinking about young people, particularly…girls of color who will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them on the wall,” quoted from the unveiling. Michelle wanted to leave a legacy behind for the presidency, but the need for longing for more empathy and call to action.

The Official Portrait of President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley

The former president is shown seated and looking at the viewer directly. The background is covered with ivy and flowers. The flowers are chrysanthemums, jasmine, and African blue lilies.The portrait shows growth and the legacy that Obama wants to leave for the viewer. Barack Obama is regarded as being very charismatic, down to earth, and a powerful African-American politician. 

It just makes sense that he would choose an artist that has painted powerful African-American male figures like Michael Jackson and The Notorious B.I.G.. 

The way Wiley portrays African-American men is portrayed in a extravagant, Baroque-like style. He is detailed, colorful, and can show the beauty of men of color. Obama wanted to show growth under his leadership. Under his leadership he was involved in the capture of a terrorist leader, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and opening the door for diverse leaders.

Overall Opinions

Am I a fan of the Obamas? You can say that. I also know the justification of using contemporary African -American artists. The paintings are different from other presidential paintings. The paintings were created in a style which is called contemporary painting. Who knows—after this current presidency, we might be going into a new era of art expression. I am hoping for a new surrealist/expressionist period.

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