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The Obama Portraits

Ellen Levitt

Posted on August 25, 2021 21:03

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The official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama are now on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

The official portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama are on a tour around the country. The first stop was Chicago. Now, it's in Brooklyn. Later, it travels to Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston.

The two portraits are on display in the Fourth Floor of the Brooklyn Museum, located in the heart of Brooklyn and easily accessible by subway train, bus and car. Visitors need to book a specific time slot on the museum website in advance, and meet Covid vaccination protocols. 

I visited during the Press Day because I was writing about this foremost for an African American arts and culture website, called ROUTES. After seeing the two portraits I sought out a few other portraits in the permanent collection and a temporary exhibition. 

The two portraits of the Obamas are beautiful and quite different than the typical Presidential and First Lady portraits which you can see at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Prior to the Mr. Obama portrait, perhaps the most unusual presidential portrait was the Elaine de Kooning portrait of JFK. 

The Obama portrait was painted by noted contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley. In it Obama sit on a chair, a bit hunched over. He wears a dark suit but no tie. His facial expression is serious and his gaze is at the viewer. His arms are folded. His hands and face are the prominent aspects of the painting, and his feet are nearly hidden in the leaves and flowers that fill the portrait. It's as if he is part of a garden.

The Michelle Obama portrait was painted by Amy Sherald.  This portrait has a plain light blue background. What is special about the portrait is the flowing, artwork-like sleeveless dress Michelle wears, and her curious skin tone, which seems more middling gray than a Black skin tone. Her arms are prominent and her hair flows. Her gaze is also aimed at the viewer.

Wiley and Sherald are the first African American artists commissioned for presidential/First Lady portraits.

These portraits are hung side by side, a few feet apart, in the gallery. I enjoyed seeing them on a quiet Wednesday morning. They have already made history.

I compared these two portraits to the two George Washington portraits in the Fifth floor American galleries here. Certainly the style of clothing and artistic rendering are quite different. How would Washington react to Obama's presidency? his portraits? Interesting to note that Obama had a college and law school graduation, but Washington had neither. Washington was a military man, Obama was not. 

Viewing the Obama portraits is a humbling experience, and a bit fraught. For all the advancements made by African Americans over the years, there is still a great deal of racism, overt and covert. See these portraits as...art. As history. As wholly American.

Ellen Levitt

Posted on August 25, 2021 21:03

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Source: WTOP

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