In less than a week since it was unveiled, a painting of Michelle Obama that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery has provoked much discussion. Commentators have pointed out notable features of artist Amy Sherald’s figure: the former first lady’s dress, her skin color and even her nails. But they missed the most remarkable detail of Obama’s portrait: her uncovered arms.
This is not the first portrait of Obama without sleeves.
Her official photographic portrait, released in 2009 and set in the White House’s oval-shaped Blue Room, where she is framed by a window facing the South Portico, pictures her posed with her left hand resting on a lily-and-tulip-laden marble table. Smiling, she appears relaxed and ready to extend her right hand in a welcoming gesture appropriate to a space associated with receptions and receiving lines.
That portrait also invoked the history of the White House. Situated just over the first lady’s left shoulder is a provocative prop, Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, captured just slightly out of focus.
The composition was a powerful reminder of how the meaning of a black woman in the White House had changed over the course of American history. The nation’s first black first lady stood in front of one of the scions of American slavery and American freedom, and his shadowy presence only underscored how black women have come to take charge of their political identities.
And still, the most remarked upon element of this photograph was the sleeveless Michael Kors dress that revealed the first lady’s arms. It provoked a storm of commentary, ranging from praise for its inspirational nature to paternalistic grousing from those who found it titillating, inappropriate — even a symbol of a fundamental incapacity to properly represent the nation.
These two images of Obama’s exposed arms bring history — that of black women and the White House — full circle. Images of black women in that iconic place have, since the nation’s founding, provoked questions about the character of our body politic. Understanding how such representations are crafted and received sheds light on changing ideas about who can represent the nation and on what terms. Obama’s latest image is no exception. It is a bold assertion of political power and equality, even as America remains burdened with racism and sexism.
In the nation’s infancy, images of enslaved women in the White House — people bound to presidents by law and the lash — provoked questions about the terms of the founding bargain. Ona Judge escaped from President George Washington in the 1790s, and we can “see” her in the text of a runaway slave advertisement: “a light Mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes, and bushy black hair. She is of middle stature, but slender and delicately made, about 20 years of age.” Washington never caught Judge, despite a years-long effort to do so. Her image, that of an enslaved woman having “absconded from the household of the President of the United States,” rejected the terms of a national compromise that paired the ideal of liberty for some with the fact of human bondage for others.
A decade later, a depiction of Sally Hemings and President Thomas Jefferson suggested how political lines drawn by race, status and gender were neither fixed nor indelible. Philadelphia cartoonist James Akin created an image of Jefferson alongside Hemings, his slave who also bore him six children.
The 1804 political parody, titled “A Philosophic Cock,” aimed to undercut Jefferson’s authority. He was portrayed as a proud, elaborately feathered rooster, while, to his left, Hemings was depicted as a hen that gazed at him with sympathetic affection. Hemings’s presence brought Jefferson’s hubris into relief. His personal conduct did not comport with his public position and his lofty words. She also disturbed a delicate balance of power, suggesting that enslaved women might have the capacity to influence slaveholding men.
We know Judge and Hemings by the pictures that others created of them. Elizabeth Keckley, by contrast, crafted her own image, writing a memoir, “Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House” in 1868. A dignified portrait of Keckley, gazing directly at the reader, opens the book. Having purchased her freedom in Missouri, she moved to Washington and built a reputation for fine dressmaking that eventually won her the role of Mary Todd Lincoln’s modiste.
Keckley tells of her position as servant, confidante and companion to President Abraham Lincoln and his family. Her tale marked a new era of black women’s self-representation, and by creating a record of her own life, she made the case for black women as citizens amid the debates over race and rights in the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction.
Three-quarters of a century later, Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator, women’s club leader and federal government administrator, served as a member of what was termed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet.” Many images exist of Bethune in this role. Most striking, however, are images of Bethune with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
The two women were astutely aware of the cameras that recorded their meetings and the political potency of the images that resulted. They posed with an understanding that the sight of their cross-race alliance — sharing a conference table, a podium, a handshake or an intimate conversation — was a forceful rebuttal to the nation’s Jim Crow order. Collaborating with Eleanor Roosevelt, Bethune used her own image as a political tool. The daughter of slaves, Bethune understood how crafting her own image and linking it to the White House was an instrument in the struggle for civil rights.
Michelle Obama’s portraits are the latest chapter in this long history. In 2009, she was a newcomer to this scene, and the criticism of her exposed arms may have caught the new first lady off guard. But today, she is a battle-honed authority on the politics of black women’s images in the White House.
Rather than backing away from past controversy, Obama confronted it. Her portrait depicts her without sleeves, which suggests that she has moved well beyond her critics by way of a studied distance, if not outright indifference. Depicted against a plain blue backdrop, no vestiges of slavery are present in Obama’s portrait. No authority — be it an advertisement or an owner — is apparent. She requires no companion or ally to validate her purpose.
Instead, she sits alone. If she is a woman who labors, hers is work of the intellect and of vision. There is no plea or appeal for inclusion evident; Obama occupies the center of the image and much of the canvas as if, we might say, she owns it. While we don’t know for certain, it is not a stretch to assume that whatever thoughts she contemplates are first and foremost her own.
No single figure or image stands in for all black women at any moment in our history. That is true even for Michelle Obama. While she is singular in her role as first lady, countless other black women also are forging images of themselves as citizens in present-day America.
Consider the “image” crafted by the results of Alabama’s 2017 special Senate election. Democrat Doug Jones only narrowly bested Republican Roy Moore — thanks to 98 percent support from Alabama’s black female voters. We can find their faces in photographs of rallies, prayer meetings and get-out-the-vote efforts. Such women are Obama’s counterparts, discernible to us by their numbers and by the force of their political participation.
Michelle Obama’s tenure as first lady was a landmark moment in our history, giving new meaning to the presence of black women in the White House. Her portraits, and their subtle political statements, draw upon centuries of lessons about how to craft one’s image and use it in the public sphere.
To represent the nation, Obama had to sweep aside parody — and that’s precisely what her portrait does. Her exposed arms unmistakably signify grace, strength and an impeccable fashion sense. But they also offer more: an unmistakable sign of black women’s political power at the start of the 21st century — a power centuries in the making.