The Obama portraits: praise, criticism, and conspiracy theories

As the Obamas continue their legacy of breaking historic norms and ending stereotypes, it’s no surprise that their portraits, unveiled Monday, Feb. 12, in Washington D.C., were untraditional to say the least.

In addition to being the first African-American presidential portrait on display in the National Portrait Gallery, the painting itself will the first painted by an African-American artist.

In the days following the unveiling, positive and negative reactions have abounded as critics and the public alike search for hidden messages, controversy, and political statements. With such distinctive portraits, there is much to be found.

Mr. Obama

Former president Barack Obama’s portrait, the one that will hang with the other 43 paintings of past presidents, features him leaning forward in a chair with a serious look on his face… and that’s about where the similarity to other presidential portraits ends. His chair is somewhat suspended in midair, surrounded by a brightly-colored garden scene. His stern expression and stiff posture contrasts sharply with the soft flowery scene surrounding him.

The artist behind this work is Kehinde Wiley, known for his stylized paintings of young black people as recreations of traditional portraits. Wiley often uses his art as a critique of the lack of non-white figures throughout the history of art, which is exactly what drew Obama to him in the first place. “What I was always struck by whenever I saw his portraits was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege,” Obama said at the ceremony.

While many have praised the portrait for its break from tradition and subtle messages, others have found reason to criticize, as well as speculate.

Wiley has drawn some controversy for a painting that portrays a black woman cutting off the head of a white woman. Some have said that the former president went a little too far with his unconventional choice of artist, and criticize him for being divisive rather than unifying.

In another twist on the garden background, some conservatives, like Sean Hannity, have seen a sexually pervasive theme.. On Twitter, Hannity claimed that there were “secret images of sperm” within the garden scene, and that the painting served as a sort of sexual innuendo. (The tweet was later deleted.)

Mrs. Obama

Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s painting is just as unconventional and stylized as her husband’s. Amy Sherald, known for her portrayals of African-Americans doing everyday things, was commissioned to paint Mrs. Obama’s portrait. The finished work portrays Obama in a long, abstractly designed dress against a blue backdrop. Her hair flows around her shoulders, and the entire painting is in grayscale, making it less realistic and more stylized.

Yet the dress symbolizes much more than just the fashion of Mrs. Obama. The painted dress is based on a real dress designed by Michelle Smith under her company name, Milly. Obama has worn several Milly outfits and was involved in the decision to have the Milly dress in the portrait. Milly is also known for designing clothes meant to support equality movements and criticize President Trump. In addition, fashion experts have pointed to the more affordable cotton material of the dress as a foil to Melania Trump’s expensive, high-end fashion choices. It is unclear whether Obama hid this message in her portrait intentionally.

Lastly, many are saying that Obama’s portrait doesn’t look that much liker. Conservative Commentator Ben Shapiro compared her portrait to a completely abstract painting on Twitter, pointing out that Sherald appears to have gone more stylistic than realistic. That said, other critics have praised Sherald for capturing the essence of Obama’s character, and making her portrait more universal and relatable through her stylistic choices.

One thing’s for certain, the Obamas are masters of sending subtle messages through creative outlets, and the uniqueness of their portraits created space for a discussion of issues they care about that may not have happened with more traditional renditions.


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