Artists Chosen to Paint Obamas’ Portraits

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Artist Kehinde Wiley places modern African American subjects against classic backgrounds. HIs 2005 portrait of rapper LL Cool J (left) was based on John Singer Sargent's 1917 portrait of wealthy businessman John D. Rockefeller. Wiley has just been chosen to paint former President Barack Obama's portrait for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

Kehinde Wiley’s art depicts contemporary African American people in historical settings . His 2005 portrait of rapper LL Cool J (left) is based on John Singer Sargent’s 1917 portrait of wealthy American businessman John D. Rockefeller (right). Wiley will paint former U.S. President Barack Obama’s official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

The Smithsonian Institution National Portrait Gallery has announced that it has commissioned official portraits of former U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. At the end of a presidency, the museum and the White House commission official portraits of both the president and his spouse. Two sets of portraits are commissioned. One is in the White House; the other remains in the National Portrait Gallery.

The National Portrait Gallery began to commission presidents’ portraits with George H.W. Bush, who served as president from 1989 to 1993. The Washington D.C. gallery has the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House. The gallery honors more than presidents, however. There are paintings of artists, scientists, inventors, and activists who have had an impact on American culture.

Two artists will paint the Obamas’ portraits. Barack Obama chose the well-known artist Kehinde Wiley. Michelle Obama selected Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald. The portraits will be unveiled in early 2018.

“The Portrait Gallery is absolutely delighted that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have agreed to create the official portraits of our former President and First Lady,” said Kim Sajet, director of the  Gallery. “Both have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century.”

Kehinde Wiley paints portraits that place contemporary African American people in classical settings. Wiley was chosen to paint President Barack Obama's official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery.

“If black lives matter, they deserve to be in paintings,” according to artist Kehinde Wiley. He received the U.S. National Medal of Arts in 2014.

Old Paintings, New People

Kehinde Wiley was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1977. He grew up on the South Central area of that city. When he was eleven years old, Wiley took art classes at a conservatory at California State University, Los Angeles. The next year, the 12-year-old artist attended a six-week art program in the Soviet Union.

Wiley attended the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. After graduation, he went on to earn two degrees. In 1999, he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the San Francisco Art Institute, then he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale University in 2001.

Wiley came to wider attention with a series of paintings called Passing/Posing. These paintings, created between 2001 and 2004, looked a lot like paintings by European artists from the time of the Renaissance. However, instead of heroes, leaders, or religious figures of the past, Wiley’s portraits featured young African American men from the present. Many of the subjects are not professional models but people Wiley met on the street. Instead of historical costumes, his subjects wore clothing influenced by hip-hop culture. His portrait of rapper LL Cool J currently appears at the National Portrait Gallery.

In 2012, Wiley started featuring African American women in his paintings. However, he wanted to avoid copying his portraits of men.

Wiley explained, “I didn’t think it was appropriate to thoughtlessly remake the same type of work and just place women in that field. I thought it would be useful to look at the history of how women had been seen in paintings, how they’d been portrayed in paintings, and how specifically a painting made in the 21st century, they both acknowledge and respond and accept and protest to all of those beautiful and terrible things from the past.”

For the series An Economy of Grace, Wiley commissioned gowns from the fashion company Givenchy. Again, Wiley recruited his models on the streets of New York City. Like women in classical paintings, his subjects wear fancy dresses, stylish headpieces, and elaborate makeup.

Based on the importance of his work, Wiley received the National Medal of Arts in 2014.

Speaking to his focus on African American portraits, Wiley said, “By and large, most of the work that we see in the great museums throughout the world are populated with people who don’t happen to look like me. As a child, I grew up studying and worshiping those great works of Western European painting. But I also wanted to fulfill the goal of feeling a certain personal presence in that work.”

“At its best, what art does is, it points to who we as human beings and what we as human beings value,” Wiley added. “And if black lives matter, they deserve to be in paintings.”

Although Amy Sherald's paintings present African American women in colorful clothes against bright backgrounds, their skin is captured in gray. Sherald will paint Michelle Obama's official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery.

Amy Sherald’s paintings feature African American women in colorful clothes against bright backgrounds, but their skin is captured in gray. Sherald will paint Michelle Obama’s portrait for the National Portrait Gallery.

Portraits in Gray

Amy Sherald was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1973. She always loved to draw. She explained, “When I started school, I would draw pictures at the end of my sentences: a house, a flower, a tree, a bird. Whatever was in the sentence, I’d draw it.”

Sherald received a Bachelor of Art degree in painting from Clark-Atlanta University in 1997 and a Master of Fine Art degree in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004. Her earliest work had an autobiographical focus. After she moved to Baltimore, however, her art began to explore African American cultural history.

Sherald was interested in how African Americans are usually represented in art. Many of her paintings feature African American women. Like Kehinde Wiley, her subjects wear bright clothes and are posed against colorful backgrounds. However, her subject’s skin color is usually captured in various tones of gray.

Around 2000, Sherald was living in Norway and working for a painter when her mother called. Her mother asked her to come home to America. Several of Sherald’s family members were ill, and her mother needed help caring for them. Once she was back in the U.S., Sherald started running. Before she started training for a race, she visited her doctor for a check-up. Even though she had shown no symptoms until that point, she was diagnosed with a serious disease called congestive heart failure. Between caring for her relatives’ health and her own, Sherald stopped painting for three years.

Sherald returned to Baltimore in 2010 to continue her painting career. Unfortunately, her heart disease had gotten worse. She lost weight and had trouble breathing. Eventually, Sherald collapsed. She now needed a heart transplant in order to survive.

After receiving her transplant, it was about a year before Sherald felt healthy enough to paint again. She now taught art to people in prisons and worked on art projects with teenagers.

Then, in 2013, Sherald painted a portrait of a woman at a luncheon. The woman wore a red hat and blue dress. Her gloved hands held a white teacup and saucer. However, some things in the painting looked strange. The teacup was too big—about the size of the subject’s head! The woman’s skin was painted an unnatural gray.

This painting, Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance), brought Sherald to national attention. The painting beat 2,500 other entries and won first place in the National Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Sherald was the first woman to ever win this prize.

Sherald has said she wants her art to show people the possibilities each one has in life. “I want people to be able to imagine life outside of the circumscribed stereotype, or identity that can be controlled by many circumstances such as your environment, your parents, your friends, your skin color, your class, etc. I just want them to see that a more beautiful world exists beyond the confines of your environment.”

Additional Resources

Read more about the artists chosen to paint the Obamas’ portraits at the Smithsonian Institution and the Wall Street Journal.

Watch videos about Kehinde Wiley at PBS and Amy Sherald at Baltimore Art.

Browse a collection of presidential portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.

Images and Sources

LL Cool J painting: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; on loan from LL Cool J © Kehinde Wiley
LL Cool J painting license: Creative Commons 3.0

John D. Rockefeller painting: Private collection
John D. Rockefeller painting license: public domain

Kehinde Wiley photo: Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc.
Kehinde Wiley photo license: Creative Commons 3.0

Amy Sherald photo: Paul Morigi, 2016/AP Images for National Portrait Gallery
Amy Sherald photo license: Creative Commons 3.0