In former President George Bush’s official portrait, the Texan is displayed in the Oval Office, his hand resting on a chair with a cushion emblazoned with the presidential seal, the Resolute desk visible behind him. Bill Clinton chose to stand in front of an ornate fireplace with a porcelain vase on the mantle.
At the end of every President’s term, the Commander-In-Chief’s portrait is painted, a longstanding tradition started by George Washington, whose portrait depicts him holding a sword with a gold handle. Before television or the internet, the portrait provided one of the few, if not only, visual representations of the nation’s leader. These portraits were orchestrated to display the President in a positive light, given the opportunities to display the President’s stature and leadership. Theodore Roosevelt famously destroyed his original after he felt it threatened his masculinity, and had a new artist remake it.
Today, the widespread access to pictures and information about the President has diminished the authority the portrait has in defining a President’s reputation. Despite that, modern presidents have continued to maintain traditional depictions of power and leadership in their portraits.
On Feb. 12, former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama unveiled their portraits at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Their portraits, however, were a departure from traditional depictions. They opting for two portraits that embrace their upbringing and African American identity.
The president’s portrait depicts him seated in front of a wall of vibrant green foliage that is encroaching on the 44th President, a few leaves branching onto his chair and over his legs, as if in a few hours he will have been sucked into the plants. Among the leaves are flowers representing various parts of his identity.There is a white jasmine flower from Hawaii where he grew up; blue African lilies representing his father’s Kenyan heritage; violets, the state flower of Illinois; and bright, multicolored chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, the city where Obama’s political career began and where he met Michelle. The former First Lady’s portrait shows her sitting, one hand under her chin, in an overflowing dress with geometric shapes inspired by African American quilt prints from Alabama. Michelle’s skin is an ashy gray, a conscious decision that artist Amy Sherald makes in all her artwork to minimize the influence of race.
Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley, the artists behind the portraits, were selected for their artwork’s thematic elements, ranging from social justice to black culture. While the portraits have received criticism from deviating from precedent, the Obama’s purposefully chose their artists because of their focus on African American experiences. Wiley’s previous artwork predominantly depicts black men in street wear and sports jerseys with intricate and psychedelic floral backgrounds.
At the Smithsonian’s unveiling ceremony, both artists noted the importance of the opportunity and the influence they hoped the portraits would have.
“This is consequential. This is who we as a society decide who to celebrate. This is our humanity,” Wiley said. “The ability to be the first African American painter to paint the first African American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming,” Wiley said.
Sherald hopes her portrait of a black women in a position of power inspires future generations.
“They will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution,” Michelle Obama said of black girls, “And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.”
Among dozens of almost identical portraits of white men, Barack Obama’s vibrant portrait stands out and defies the norm for presidential paintings. Discussions of potential presidential candidates for the 2020 election include names like Indian and African American senator Kamala Harris, and Cuban Senator Marco Rubio, candidates that might not have been deemed viable before the Obama presidency. It is only fitting then that the former Commander-In-Chief’s portrait reflects the groundbreaking change brought by the first black president to the U.S. political landscape.