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The Obamas’ portraits are not what you’d expect, and that’s why they’re great

The National Portrait Gallery has unveiled the official portraits of former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, both painted by African American artists, and both striking additions to the museum’s “America’s Presidents” exhibition. The 44th president is seen sitting on a wooden armchair that seems to be floating amid a scrim of dense foliage and flowers in an image by Kehinde Wiley. The first lady, painted against a robin’s egg blue background, rests her chin on one hand and stares at the viewer with a curious mix of confidence and vulnerability in a canvas by Amy Sherald.

The artists, chosen by the Obamas, have combined traditional representation with elements that underscore the complexity of their subjects, and the historic fact of their political rise. And both painters have managed to create compelling likenesses without sacrificing key aspects of their signature styles. The Obamas took a significant chance on both artists and were rewarded with powerful images that will shake up the expectations and assumptions of visitors to the traditionally button-down presidential galleries.

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Wiley, an established artist whose work is held by prominent museums worldwide, has produced a characteristically flat, almost polished surface, with intensely rich colors and a busy, sumptuous background that recalls his interest in historical portraiture.

The National Portrait Gallery unveiled the official portraits of former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. (Video: Reuters)

Sherald, who won the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever prize in 2016, has painted Michelle Obama’s face in the gray tones of an old black-and-white photograph, set against a preternaturally bright background, a technique she has used to introduce a heightened sense of the surreal in many of her works.

But both artists also have tempered aspects of their usual styles to create works that emphasize the dignity of the subject over the irony of the artist. Wiley, who has made portraits of LL Cool J, Michael Jackson and Notorious B.I.G., often skewers the pomp and grandiloquence of historical portraiture, painting his subjects in poses familiar from classic works by Napoleon’s propagandist, Jacque-Louis David, or Tiepolo or Peter Paul Rubens (Wiley depicted Jackson on horseback, wearing the armor of a Habsburg king, crowned by angelic flying figures). Many of his works, which engage with hip-hop culture, have a distinct homoerotic quality as well.

Wiley’s portrait of the former president doesn’t go there. Indeed, the pose of Obama, who is seen in a dark suit with an open-collar shirt, sitting with his arms crossed and resting on his knees, recalls Robert Anderson’s official 2008 portrait of George W. Bush, who is rendered in a similar, casual pose. Nor does Sherald, who often depicts her subjects with some curiously evocative object (a bunch of balloons or a model ship) that creates a dreamlike atmosphere, emphasize the phantasmagorical in her portrait of Michelle Obama.

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But both artists have stressed the importance of creating portraiture of African Americans that will reconfigure the canon and the museum in more inclusive ways. Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, remembers seeing Sherald engage with young African American girls at a gallery talk. “She bent down and looked at them and said, ‘I painted this for you so that when you go to a museum you will see someone who looks like you on the wall.’ ” Wiley, too, has focused throughout his career on inserting black faces and figures into the traditional context of elite, aristocratic portraiture, although with ambiguous results: It is never clear whether the goal is to remedy the omission, or destabilize the tradition.

The two portraits render their subjects life-size, which underscores their historical importance and accomplishments. Although the artists worked independently of each other, and their works aren’t meant to be seen side by side (they will reside in different galleries when they go on view), they make a curious pairing. Both capture elements that their subjects carefully curated during their public life as president and first lady. A swelling vein on the left side of the president’s face, and the intensity of his gaze, suggest the “doesn’t suffer fools gladly” impatience that occasionally flashed from him, a marked contrast with the smiling and laughing photographic portraits by Chuck Close that have until now stood in for the official portrait in the “America’s Presidents” exhibition.

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Wiley has included flowers in the background (another nod to historical portraiture) to reference elements of the president’s personal history, including jasmine for Hawaii, African blue lilies for his father’s Kenyan heritage, and chrysanthemums, which are the official flower of Chicago. Curiously, the president’s left foot is poised just over a bunch of African blue lilies, as though he’s about to crush them.

The scene during the Obamas’ portrait unveiling

Feb. 12, 2018 | Former president Barack Obama is seen during the unveiling of the official portraits of him and former first lady Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Sherald has depicted Michelle Obama in a dress by Michelle Smith’s Milly label, tasteful but not extravagant department-store fashion that recalls the first lady’s mix of couture and comfortable pragmatism. Sherald was attracted by the large, geometric patterns of the fabric, which recalls the style of Mondrian. But it is the bulk of the dress that makes a statement, all but engulfing the body, with little more than the face, arms and hands (with light violet-colored nail polish) exposed. The dress forms a pyramid, with the face atop, in a way that suggests a protective carapace, hiding from view the first lady’s body and some of her femininity, which were targets of racist attack during her tenure in the East Wing.

The contrast of the artists’ renderings of the backgrounds is also compelling. The first lady inhabits a world of calm, clarity and Wedgwood-hued enlightenment, while the president is seen untethered against a screen of leaves and flowers, with occasional glimpses into an unknown, dark space beyond. So one of them seems grounded while the other is up for grabs, while some of the femininity hidden within the folds of the first lady’s dress has magically reappeared in the refulgent floral world of the president’s portrait.

It’s easy to forget the historical importance of Monday’s unveiling. Intellectually, we all know that the White House was a white man’s exclusive preserve until 2008. But a stroll through the National Portrait Gallery emphasizes that fact in a visual and emotional way that recalls not just the racism built into this country’s founding document, but the racism that has shaped the history of art and portraiture since the Renaissance.

The Obamas’ potential to change the tone and political culture of this country was blunted by the persistence of that racism before and during their time at the country’s political apex. Now that they have left office, now that their fundamental decency is in high relief by contrast with the new political order, memory is refreshed. They look a bit older than the two people who carried so much collective fantasy of a different America with them to Washington nine years ago. That fantasy was premature and unrealistic, and it is only now clear how powerfully it animated the meanest impulses of those who reject it. But these portraits will remind future generations how much wish fulfillment was embodied in the Obamas, and how gracefully they bore that burden.