Obama portraits arrive at High Museum

Iconic paintings by Georgia native Amy Sherald, Kehinde Wiley make Deep South debut
The official portraits of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald, commissioned for the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, are on a national tour that has brought them to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The official portraits of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald, commissioned for the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, are on a national tour that has brought them to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Toward the end of Barack Obama’s last term as president and Michelle Obama’s tenure as first lady, the couple received two folders, each containing 10 names.

Two of the 20 people had a chance to create a legacy for the first couple, one perhaps more visible and lasting than some Obama-era policies or programs. Sent by curators at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the folder also bore images of work by the 20, all of them Black artists vying to paint the official public portraits of the president and first lady.

The Obamas’ task was to whittle the list to six finalists, three for the president’s portrait and three for the first lady’s. How Columbus native Amy Sherald and New York-based Kehinde Wiley rose to the top —through years of preparation for the moment and through face-to-face, nerve-wracking Oval Office interviews with the first couple — will be forever part of art and presidential history.

Now, Atlanta hosts the paintings, which are the centerpiece of “The Obama Portraits National Tour,” on view through March 20 at the High Museum of Art.

Both portraits have become iconic and embraced, as well as fodder for debate. But from the moment they were unveiled in February 2018, “we saw in both portraits, the future of portraiture,” said Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery.

The official public portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta through March 13.

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The people’s museum

The portrait tour was unexpected since originally there was no plan for the paintings to leave the Smithsonian after their unveiling. But the gallery saw its attendance nearly double from 1.2 million visitors to 2.3 million visitors during the first year the paintings were exhibited, and museums across the country asked to host the works, Moss said.

Atlanta is the fourth stop on the exhibit’s five-city tour, which began in the Obama’s hometown of Chicago last June, before traveling to Brooklyn and Los Angeles. After Atlanta, the portraits go to Houston.

Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait, is a Clark Atlanta University graduate who also studied painting at Spelman College. She had hoped to attend the opening at the High but declined due to the latest coronavirus surge. It was a particular disappointment because her family from Columbus and Atlanta had planned to attend, but “as a heart transplant recipient, I just can’t risk it,” she said. “People want to hug you. I want to hug them back and (sign) autographs and that kind of thing, but it’s just the fact that it’s still transmissible.”

Amy Sherald, a Columbus, Georgia native and Clark Atlanta University graduate, was the winner of the High Museum of Art's 2018 Driskell Prize. The prize goes to advance art and art scholarship of the African diaspora in the U.S. Photo: courtesy High Museum


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People have flocked to see both paintings at each tour stop despite the pandemic. The crowds speak to the enduring popularity of the Obamas, but also the magnetic and ethereal qualities of the works, which are true departures in style and composition from depictions of past first couples.

The Smithsonian has a complete collection of all past presidents’ portraits, but it didn’t start commissioning them until George H.W. Bush, nearly 30 years ago. One administration later, the Smithsonian began doing the same for first ladies, with Hillary Clinton. Prior to that, paintings were gifted to the gallery by relatives of the first family or other sources. The White House also commissions paintings of presidents and first ladies, but those portraits remain part of the White House’s private collection.

The White House is “the people’s house,” but the Smithsonian is their museum, and like presidents and first ladies before them, the Obama’s knew that these would be the portraits most people would see and that they would be remembered by. Which is why they were clear when they worked with portrait gallery curators and Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem and art consultant to the Obamas, that they would only consider Black artists. Moss said the initial list included early and mid-career painters, as well as revered veterans, representing a mix of conceptual, contemporary and traditional artists.

Once the list was narrowed to six, the first couple personally interviewed each candidate in the Oval Office with both of them present.

Artist Kehinde Wiley, left, and Artist Amy Sherald, right, embrace during an unveiling ceremony for the official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama at Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Credit: Andrew Harnik

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Credit: Andrew Harnik

‘My moment’

Sherald was unprepared for the lighting in the Oval Office to glow as though it was a set when she was greeted by the president and first lady.

“When he first started walking towards me, I was like, ‘Whoa,’ because he’s so tall,” Sherald said. “It was like, ‘He’s bigger than life in real life.’ And then when you meet him, you’re like, ‘I totally understand why you had to be the first Black president.’ He has that energy about him. I was just in shock. Honestly, I just sat there for five seconds because my mind was asking, ‘Is this a dream? He’s walking towards you, Amy. Open your mouth and shake his hand.’

But then she gathered herself.

“I’m always full of self doubt, but I guess that’s on the surface because deep, deep down inside I knew that this was my moment. I felt like I didn’t survive everything I survived and end up in the White House for this not to happen,” Sherald said.

After a handshake with Michelle Obama, Sherald found conversation with the first lady to be easy and knowing. Michelle Obama’s family has Southern roots as does Sherald. There was a familiar rhythm in their interaction, Sherald said. And in an art world that is overwhelmingly white, for once “I didn’t have to think about myself as a Black woman,” Sherald said. “I was able to be my authentic self. I’m sitting in the White House with the first Black president and the first Black first lady and I’m a Black artist and we’re in this room. This is amazing.”

In a virtual conversation with Golden and Sherald for the tour opening in Chicago, Michelle Obama said she connected with Sherald immediately.

“I know this young woman; her presence, her aura. Setting aside her talent her creativity, her purpose —which was all real — there was a real personal connection between me and Amy,” Obama told Golden.

Michelle Obama also chose Sherald for the very particular way she renders everyday Black people. Sherald’s subjects tend to look directly at viewers, challenging them to meet the subject’s gaze and to consider their humanity, strength but also fragility. To further push the viewer to look past notions and stereotypes associated with Black people, Sherald paints their skin in shades of gray, a technique called grayscale, a call back to her love of old black-and-white family photos.

Sherald worked with Michelle Obama’s stylist, Meredith Koop, to come up with three clothing options for the portrait. One was a suit with a bolero jacket that Sherald said was reminiscent of Obama’s early years as first lady. Another had 3-D flowers. Then, the day of the first photo shoot, Obama walked in wearing the third option: a simple but striking, sleeveless, cotton dress in a midi length, a style that had become another of her signatures. The bodice was primarily black, but the skirt of the dress, designed by Michelle Smith, was white with colorful rectangular bands, triangles, circles inset as though applied like patches of a quilt by the Black women fabric artists of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

Michelle Obama and Amy Sherald at the February 2018 unveiling of the first lady's official public portrait.

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Sherald photographed the first lady in different positions, realizing that no matter how she posed, Obama was at ease in the dress. Then she asked her to sit on a stool and the dress unfolded in a way that reminded the artist of the primary-colored squares and rectangles of abstract 20th-century master Piet Mondrian. In that moment, Sherald saw the dress and the woman wearing it as bridging the artistic history of Black American quilters and European masters.

“It created this dynamic that I was looking for, where the dress was the painting itself, but there was also a painting of the first lady,” Sherald said.

Shattering the mold

Wiley had been preparing for his moment as portrait artist of former President Barack Obama since childhood, when his talent earned him a spot in a six-week art program in Russia when he was 12. It was part of a cultural exchange program to bridge relations between American and Russian citizens. Wiley often speaks of how his mother encouraged him to pursue the arts throughout his youth in South Central Los Angeles. By the time he received his MFA from Yale, he had distinguished himself as a portraitist who spotlighted everyday Black people in ways that smashed stereotypes and conferred nobility upon each subject.

In a virtual interview for the opening at the Art Institute of Chicago, Wiley described his meeting with the president as though figuring out a puzzle.

Artist Kehinde Wiley, who painted the official portrait of former President Barack Obama, speaks to members of the media following an official unveiling ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Credit: Andrew Harnik

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Credit: Andrew Harnik

“He said to me, ‘Your work is about taking the little guy off the street and making him or her noble and emboldened and graceful and seen. Well, I happen to be the president of the United States, and so I think there’s going to be a slightly different set of ingredients here.’ So, I think, what we attempted to do within that conversation was to try to figure out a language that looked at the vocabulary of power, but almost walk right past it. To look at him squarely and to say, ‘What is it that defines you in terms of body language? What are the contours of your relationship to your public, and how can I be of service to make something that lives, something that’s timeless and something that’s surprising,’” Wiley said.

Typically Wiley spots young Black people on the street and asks to photograph and paint them in scenes either taken directly from Old Master paintings or that are embellished with Rococo flourishes like filigree. In taking on Obama, the artist stayed true to his method, which wound up shattering the mold of presidential portraits. Wiley painted the 44th president seated, without a tie, surrounded and nearly engulfed by a verdant wall of green leaves and colorful blossoms. Each flower relates to Obama’s life trajectory, from the jasmine of his birth state of Hawaii, to the chrysanthemums, which are the official flower of Chicago, to the African blue lilies, which reference the former president’s Kenyan father.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and artist Kehinde Wiley unveil his portrait during a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, on February 12, 2018, in Washington, DC. The portraits were commissioned by the Gallery, for Kehinde Wiley to create President Obama's portrait, and Amy Sherald that of Michelle Obama.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Credit: Mark Wilson

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Credit: Mark Wilson

“That’s why the background is demanding space. That’s why it’s rude. That’s why it’s shoving and demanding to grow over. It’s refusing to disappear. That’s kind of a metaphor for how I see social revolutions of all sorts,” Wiley said in the Art Institute interview.

“Speak to the future”

When both paintings were uncrated before Smithsonian staff members prior to their public unveiling in February 2018, the room fell silent, Moss recalled.

“We were blown away,” she said. “Because, for the most part, it was so unconventional for a presidential portrait not to be set in the space of a ceremonial room in the White House. It made it all the more dynamic and exciting.”

The portraits are “of this contemporary moment but speak to the future, and that’s a different approach than we’ve seen. Usually the portraits speak to the past. This is a break from that in a fresh and positive and forward-looking way,” Moss said.

Which is why some observers found the paintings unsettling and in some cases unrecognizable. Across social media, people said Michelle Obama’s portrait looked nothing like her and even compared her image to that of actress and director Regina King. Others said the green of the garden upstaged the president. Moss said that’s what art is supposed to do, especially by conceptual artists such as Sherald: get people talking and thinking.

“The lines of people waiting to see the portraits spoke the loudest,” Moss said. “It didn’t matter whether people felt like they weren’t going to like the portraits or not. They came.”

Less noted across the social landscape was the reaction to Obama’s portrait, which was displayed in a National Portrait Gallery installation that was dark, formal and almost ceremonial with heavy columns. There were the 44th president’s predecessors rendered in tasteful muted tones. But as Obama’s portrait came into view, the pop of green stopped viewers short.

“People would gasp and would say, ‘It glows!’ Those greens ... and the warmth of Obama’s eyes,” said Moss. “There’s a twinkle in the eye that captures the viewer so you’re in it with him.”


“The Obama Portraits Tour.” Through March 20. $16.50. Purchase timed tickets in advance through the website; limited number of walk-up tickets available each day. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4400, high.org. Masks are mandatory for all guests over 2 years old.