Behind The Obama Portraits: Artists Put Their Own Spin On A Presidential Tradition

Feb 13, 2018

Long before Monday's official unveiling of Barack and Michelle Obama's unconventional portraits, the artists who painted them began working on details like the dress Michelle would wear and Barack's background tableau.

The process began near the end of the first African-American president's final term when he chose New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley, 41, and the first lady chose Baltimore-based painter Amy Sherald, 44, to paint their portraits.

Wiley and Sherald, who both generally paint lush, vivid canvases of ordinary black subjects, are the first African-American artists commissioned by the Portrait Gallery to paint a presidential couple.

And with that distinction as a starting point, Wiley says the collaboration with Obama kicked off with an examination of portraiture itself.

"It's one of those things that can, in a sense, remain stodgy unless you reinvigorate it with a new sense of urgency," Wiley tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep.

Together Wiley and Obama went through art history books, looking at body language and backdrops. Wiley says the books served as a "menu" of the elements of a portrait. But instead of painting the traditional regal office setting or battle scene, Wiley painted a seated Obama among crisp, bright green foliage and colorful flowers.

"Very quickly we arrived at the notion: As opposed to creating a type of echo of historical precedence, we should try to clear the table," Wiley says, and "start at ground level to create something that hasn't been seen before."

Wiley is known for painting young African-American men in bright, bold, regal settings that are influenced by art history. At Monday's unveiling, Obama said he was struck by how Wiley's portraits "challenge our conventional views of power and privilege."

"He would take extraordinary care and precision and vision in recognizing the beauty and the grace and the dignity of people who are so often invisible in our lives and put them on a grand stage, on a grand scale, and force us to look and see them in ways that so often they were not," Obama said.

The challenge, then, for Wiley — and for Sherald — was that neither subject was ordinary. If Wiley's impulse was to elevate his subjects, how would he depict the most powerful of people?

It's one of the questions Obama asked him when they met.

"He asked me about my relationship to power, and how it is that I would make a portrait that differs from that power dynamic that exists in my work heretofore," Wiley remembers. "It really came down to, 'OK, Kehinde, you really do a type of transformation. You take people from everyday life and elevate them to a level of dignity and celebration. What happens when you're painting the head of the free world? What happens in your language as an artist when you're dealing with Barack Obama as the subject of this painting?' "

The result is a work that embraces Obama's own personal story. For example, Wiley included flowers like jasmine to represent Hawaii, Obama's birthplace; African blue lilies for Kenya, the birthplace of his father; and chrysanthemums for Chicago, the birthplace of his political career.

Amy Sherald took a different approach to Michelle Obama's portrait. She is known for painting African-American subjects in gray scale and surrounding and dressing them in bright colors. She tells All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro that she was keenly aware of the challenge of painting an already famous person.

"Michelle Obama is extraordinary, but she is also the kind of woman that exists in a way that she is 100 percent relatable to all kinds of people, all genders, all around the world," Sherald says. "And so she sits symbolically in the world in the same way I want my images to sit. They are just being themselves. And her just being herself was a profound statement that really engaged all of us because she is just accessible, and I think that she is ideally the same as the sitters that I've had before."

Sherald says she and the former first lady looked at a few dresses before picking the one she ultimately wore. It's white and features a pattern that seems to nod to the geometric art of Piet Mondrian.

"She's known for a lot of things and one of them is fashion, so I knew that was important," Sherald says. "I knew I wanted something that was colorful, something that had a bold kind of pattern on it. I narrowed it down to two dresses, but once I saw her in that one, I knew that was the one that she needed to be frozen in time in."

Sherald says the gown, which was designed by Milly, "has a connection to the art canon, but it also speaks to black culture." Its pattern reminded her of the quilts made by the women of Gee's Bend, a small black community in Alabama. "Quilting is a huge part of black culture," Sherald says.

Despite the famous subjects, both artists say their portraits are consistent with their established style. But if you ask Wiley whether his painting makes sense among the other presidential portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, he says, "I think it fits in, and it doesn't fit in."

It does because his Obama portrait is one in a long line of celebrations of the American presidency — and it includes some basic, familiar elements of portraiture.

But ultimately, it presents something new.

"What we're positing here is a new vision of the possible," Wiley says,"one which is inclusive, one that says yes to people who happen to look like me and one that will increasingly catch fire as we go on to inspire young people to imagine new possibilities."

Barton Girdwood produced the broadcast version of this story.

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We've been talking with the artist who painted President Obama's official portrait. They were together on stage for the unveiling yesterday at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Obama was the one in the conservative suit. Artist Kehinde Wiley was the man in the dark blazer with broad white stripes.


BARACK OBAMA: He and I make different sartorial decisions.


INSKEEP: But the former president said they relate to each other's stories. A little after 10:00 on Monday morning, Wiley stood with Obama on stage for the big reveal. Let's do this with a little golf announcer voice.


INSKEEP: Obama looks much as he always did. Gestures to the artist to make sure he's in the right place. The frame is much taller than both men. Together, they're pulling down the black cloth. It's a little stuck.


INSKEEP: Awkward. They're working it around.


INSKEEP: And there it is. The former president steps back to get a look - the president, seated forward on a chair, arms crossed, with a spectacular, leafy green background that is characteristic of much of Wiley's work. The two men now are embracing in front of that portrait and having another look.

In the painting, President Obama is surrounded by flowers. Jasmine to represent Hawaii, his birthplace, African blue lilies for Kenya, the birthplace of his father, and chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, the birthplace of his political career.


INSKEEP: The portrait, plus another, of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald, are now part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. The presidential portrait will hang in a section of the museum dedicated to such portraits. Lincoln, in his portrait, is sitting forward on his chair, too. George Washington is gesturing as if to tell you to sit down. The other George W. - Bush - is relaxed, open-collared, on a couch.

KIM SAJET: We tell the story of America by those who have been in the White House. This is often how Americans tell time.

INSKEEP: We strolled through that part of the gallery with the museum director Kim Sajet. Her institution commissioned this new painting to mark a time that, as the Obamas took the stage with it, felt both very near and very far away. As we walked the gallery, we turned and there was the painter, Kehinde Wiley. He was next to Elaine de Kooning's expressionist rendering of John F. Kennedy. We talked about the long tradition of painting presidents.

KEHINDE WILEY: It's one of those things that can in a sense remain stodgy unless you reinvigorate it with a sense of urgency.

SAJET: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Did you consider the stodgy approach at any time?

WILEY: I did. In fact, what I did was I went through art history books with the president, and we went through it almost as a type of menu, looking at the features of body language, the features of backdrop.

INSKEEP: Normally you might see a powerful man in his office, maybe with his hand on some books or overlooking a dramatic scene.

WILEY: Very quickly we arrived at the notion that we should try to clear the table. Where do we start at ground level to create something that hasn't been seen before?

INSKEEP: To talk about how Wiley addressed that challenge, we took a seat on a museum bench. The artist is just over 40 years old. In choosing him, Obama seemed drawn to the artist's personal story. Like the president, Wiley is the son of an American mother and a mostly absent African father.

WILEY: My father was the first of his family to leave Nigeria and go to Los Angeles, Calif., to study at UCLA, where he met my mom. Shortly before my birth, he returns to Nigeria and I'm raised by my mother in South Central Los Angeles, one of six kids.

INSKEEP: His mother didn't have much money but sent him to art class, and he grew up to paint portraits of people from modest backgrounds like his own. As an African-American and a gay man, he felt drawn to outsiders. He often picked his subjects by approaching people he met on the street, and he painted them as they were, in their street clothes. But he placed them in heroic settings, on horseback or battling the sea in a small boat. And then this painter of ordinary people was offered a chance to paint the most powerful of people.

When he interviewed you - because he interviewed numerous artists before choosing one - when he interviewed you for this painting, what did he ask?

WILEY: He asked me about my relationship to power and how it is that I would make a portrait that differs from that power dynamic that exists in my work heretofore. It really came down to OK, Kehinde, you do a type of transformation. You take people from everyday life and elevate them to a level of dignity and celebration. What happens when you're painting the head of the free world? What happens in your language as an artist when you're dealing with Barack Obama as the subject for this painting? And I had to respond.


WILEY: Well, I must've done something right.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

WILEY: We're sitting here today. I can't remember exactly what I said, but I would imagine that I assured him that the replacement acts that go on in terms of recognizing the unrecognized can definitely be seen when recognizing an artist like myself for this role as storytelling.

INSKEEP: Last question 'cause I know you have to go. We're sitting in this gallery. There's is George W. Bush. There's George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton is behind you. And this painting of President Obama, I believe, is going to be right over here. How do you think it fits in with the other portraits of these presidents?

WILEY: I think it fits in and it doesn't fit in. I think that obviously it fits in because it's the presidency. It's the celebration of the 44th position of this hallowed position in American history. And it doesn't fit because we are existing in a very exciting new time in which a black American president has chosen a black American painter to celebrate a continuation of historical precedent and a rip within that fabric. What we're positing here is a new vision of the possible, one which is inclusive, one that says yes to people who happen to look like me, and one that increasingly will catch fire as we go on to inspire young people to imagine new possibilities, new fields of providence.

INSKEEP: Mr. Wiley, thanks very much.

WILEY: Thank you.


INSKEEP: That's the artist Kehinde Wiley talking after the unveiling of his portrait of President Obama at the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.