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“Never believe what you see on TV,” was an adage that defined a generation. Today, it’s “Never believe the things you see on the internet.” While many seemingly prepped articles hit the web the day of the unveiling—pulling quotes from the event, giving background about the artists, and remarking on the significance of black artists painting a black president and first lady—they responded more to the moment than to the paintings.
Although, to be fair, many who didn’t attend the event and thus didn’t see the portraits in person, did respond on Twitter, heaping praise and insults. Despite the tweeted criticisms of likeness and “unpresidential-ness,” the recently unveiled portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama received (let alone wackadoodle conservative websites musing on “racist conspiracy,” and “sperm face”), it wasn’t enough to keep 50,000 people from viewing them at the National Portrait Gallery over President’s Day weekend. Even if only for a minute at a time, seeing the work in person is certainly different than on the portable screen.
The first view of the portrait of President Obama is disarming. For those unfamiliar with Kehinde Wiley’s work, it was the foliage. For others, it was the image of the seated president. Technically, most of our presidents have been seated for a portrait, often with chair cropped out: Standing for a painted portrait is no picnic. With exception to Lincoln, none have been painted head to toe while seated: Even Robert Anderson cut off George W. Bush just below the ankles.
Wiley gave us the full picture of President Obama, not unlike what Obama attempted to do with his first book in 1995. Despite the suit and calm-but-uncomfortable posturing at the end of his chair, he feels approachable and ready to listen. Once face-to-face with the larger-than-life portrait, however, he looks to the horizon as much as to the viewer. It’s reminiscent of the man who met with survivors of Hurricane Sandy and Sandy Hook: a president who would attempt to take personal experience to affect legislation for a greater good.
The success of Wiley’s hyperreal portrait likely has more to do with its allusory elements: its floral backdrop. While Wiley noted that it represents the land of Obama’s Hawaiian birth, Kenyan heritage, and Chicago home, the flowers also represent something else entirely, three stupid fauxtroversies: All the conservative hand-wringing over Hawaiian vacations, the murder rate in Chicago, and his birth certificate.
The stronger of the two paintings is the more quiet one. While the collective response to the unveiling ranged from befuddlement to horror, the painted likeness of the former First Lady was not intended for glaring lights on a stage, transmitted globally via web video. It played best one-on-one, in person, away from a spotlight. Much has been stated of Amy Sherald’s gray-scale approach to flesh in portraiture. Omitted is the glow that flesh emits: a warm radiance, as if painted on copper instead of linen. It isn’t the only alchemy in Sherald’s portrait. Mrs. Obama’s expression seems to shift, like Mona Lisa’s smile. While not the most photogenic of the two portraits, it’s by far the more enchanting.
But it’s also not without its subtle allusion to fauxtroversy and hypocrisy. Certainly the bare arms didn’t escape anyone’s attention. Jackie Kennedy had them prior, and Melania Trump since. What first lady shouldn’t have the right to bare arms? However, since the gown consumes most of the painting, it has also received most of the criticism. While the gown is ripe with symbolism—the Obamas’ support of contemporary art, warnings from the Underground Railroad, MILLY clothes designer Michelle Smith’s support of LGBTQ issues—it’s Mrs. Obama’s affordable fashion sense that made her relatable, as well as a target by conservative media.
What’s unmistakable about the two pieces is that they aren’t simply works of portraiture: They are works of 21st century art. Built on centuries of what precede them, they break traditions, and barriers, and encourage new generations to tread in their wake. I’m talking about the portraits, but the same applies to the people who sat for them, too.
At the National Portrait Gallery to Feb. 28, 2028 and Nov. 4, 2018. 8th and F Streets NW. Free. (202) 633-8300. npg.si.edu.