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Baltimore artist Amy Sherald has known for more than a year that she had been selected to paint a portrait that could instantly make her career.
Normally, the presentation of presidential portraits don’t generate much buzz. But, when it was announced last fall that the two fortysomething artists had been selected to commemorate the Obamas, the news was covered nationwide.
Regardless of what some detractors think, Sherald already has at least one influential fan.
The former first lady is featured in grayscale, a nod to photographs of African Americans taken in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Amy Sherald gained national fame this week with her portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama. But she has been a rising star out of Baltimore for years.
“If I’d had her rest her chin on her fist, people would have said that I’d painted her giving the Black Power salute,” Sherald said.
National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet said Portrait Gallery officials and the Obamas saw photographs of the works in progress. But neither the couple nor the curators requested any changes.
Sherald has talked of finding inspiration in early 19th and 20th century photos of African-Americans printed on black-and-white film.
Sherald spent two 90-minute sessions photographing the former first lady in natural light, and then used the photographs to inspire the portrait. She was struck, she said, by how strongly the Michelle Obama in the photographs resembles the couple’s 19-year-old daughter, Malia.
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As is true of most of Sherald’s work, the former first lady is depicted life-size and looks directly at the viewer. Her gaze is level, her expression deadpan, her mouth relaxed but unsmiling.
The gray skin in Michelle Obama’s portrait feels at first like a loss, and then like a real gain.
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Yet inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington,…
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But until the Smithsonian Institution announced publicly this month that the 44-year-old had received the commission to paint first lady Michelle Obama’s…
Former U.S. President Barack Obama stands before his portrait as it is unveiled alongside a portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 12.
“Amy Sherald is a woman of extraordinary talent, and I am thrilled to see her getting the recognition she deserves,” Michelle Obama said. “She is well on her way to distinguishing herself as one of the great artists of her generation.”
After the portrait was unveiled,former President Barack Obama thanked Sherald “for so spectacularly capturing the grace, beauty, intelligence, charm and hotness of the woman I love.” For her part, Michelle Obama said she was “humbled” and “overwhelmed.”
Specifically, the former first lady is rendered in Sherald’s trademark “grayscale” — a light charcoal with taupe undertones — that doesn’t so much erase her subject’s race as declare its irrelevance. And both the former president and his wife couldn’t be more thrilled.
“I was intrigued before she walked into the room,” she said. “I had seen the work and was blown away by the boldness of her colors and the uniqueness of her subject matter. And then she walked in, and she was so fly and poised. She was hip and cool in a way that was expected but also that was completely unexpected.”
The former president is seated and surrounded by a field of verdant green foliage. Emerging from the leaves are flowers symbolic of his life, from blue Kenyan irises to Hawaiian jasmine to chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, where his political career was launched.
Sherald shrugged off the criticism, saying she she knew that every artistic choice she made when depicting a figure as famous as Michelle Obama would be scrutinized.
At age 39, Sherald, a person who stops to talk — really talk — to panhandlers and who recently raised $1,600 for a friend’s rent, found herself desperately in…
The former president is wearing a suit without a tie. Unlike Wiley’s other portraits, which are modeled on Old Masters artworks, Barack Obama isn’t mounted on a horse, wearing a crown or brandishing a sword.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama stands before his portrait as it is unveiled alongside a portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 12. (SAUL LOEB / AFP/Getty Images)
I think the portrait is one answer. It is an intensely private work of art that will seem otherworldly in whichever state gallery hall it is hung. “What have we done?” Michelle Obama has said she asked her husband the first time she watched her two daughters leave the White House for school, shadowed by a Secret Service army. In public exit interviews, Michelle Obama is open about her relief that the eight years are over. The portrait, beautiful and discomfiting, is like a memory of what we never knew.
Some people who followed the unveiling on social media tweeted their disappointment that the portrait doesn’t more closely resemble the former first lady.
Michelle Obama told the crowd that when she and her husband interviewed Sherald in the Oval Office during the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, she felt an instant “sista-girl” connection with the artist.
That’s one of the characteristics of the portrait unveiled Monday in Washington’s National Portrait Gallery that has everyone talking.
Evidence of power is more elusive in Sherald’s paintings. Her models are black, and they are creatures of fashion who stand upright against backdrops of pastel monochrome. In the past, Sherald has chosen her subjects for their ineffable “quality of existing in the past, present, and future simultaneously,” her gallerist Monique Meloche has said; it is true that, before one of Sherald’s figures, you think not about the passage of time or the oppressive reach of the state. Instead, these paintings make the viewer speculate about the quieter wants and wishes of the black common men and women who have emerged on the linen en grisaille—Sherald’s taupe variant of grayscale—like ghosts.
Obama joked that Wiley’s artistic integrity wouldn’t allow him to accede to the president’s request to make his ears smaller or his hair less gray.
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Michelle Obama said that “people know what they think about us and how they see us.” She compared Sherald’s task to “cooking Thanksgiving dinner for strangers. Everyone has an idea of what Thanksgiving dinner is supposed to taste like.”
When the covering was pulled off Sherald’s portrait, the crowd murmured with delight. A few minutes later, when Wiley’s depiction of Barack Obama was unwrapped, the audience audibly gasped.
Obama is depicted seated, her hair loose around her shoulders, her chin resting on one hand. The mood is contemplative and serene. She wears a floor-length white gown with an abstract pattern reminiscent of paintings by Piet Mondrian, as well as of quilts made by a community of black artists in Gee’s Bend, Ala.
The painting is shocking because Sherald has somehow conjured a vision of Michelle Obama, one of the most photographed women in history, that we have not yet seen—one free of the candid Washingtonian glamour found in photographs such as those in Amanda Lucidon’s “Chasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer.” Obama sits against sky-blue oblivion, the triangular shape of the dress turning her into a mountain. Sherald may be the portrait artist of “American people,” and Obama, looking askance, leaning slightly, may want to be a part of that record, but she is also a symbol, an aggrandizement. The racializing schema of Sherald’s work is to “exclude the idea of color as race,” she has said, in her artist’s statement. To Sherald, the photorealistic depiction of race—a quality determined by others’ eyes, externally—is a dead end. Applied to Michelle Obama, the lack of brown in the skin feels first like a loss, and then like a real gain. This is a different Michelle, a woman evacuated of celebrity, who appears provisionally dreamlike, nearly a shadow. The mouth and the eyes and the strong arms that we know are present, but fainter. From some distance, I can imagine, the figure might not be immediately recognizable.
But in other ways, this work represents a departure for Sherald. In other portraits she’s created, the colors pop and fizz, an effect not unlike champagne. In the artwork temporarily named “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,” the colors are muted: The silvery white of the dress is backed by a soft, Colonial blue background. The colors underscore her subject’s dignity.
Partly, that’s because it seemed fitting that black artists would depict the nation’s first black president and first lady. What’s more, the Obamas’ choice was artistically bold. Sherald, 44, and Wiley, 40, are contemporary artists with distinct — and surprisingly complementary — styles seemingly designed to confound those who expected the Obamas’ portraits to display the photographic realism that characterizes much of the rest of the presidential collection.
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Michelle Obama portrait by Baltimore artist Amy Sherald makes national splash
After the official portrait for Michelle Obama, painted by Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday morning, reactions to photos of the portrait on Twitter were largely critical.
“Maybe the one area where there were some concessions is that Kehinde didn’t put me in this situation with partridges and scepters and thrones,” Barack Obama said. “I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without him making me look like Napoleon.”
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“I paint American people, and I tell American stories through the paintings I create,” Sherald said. “Once my paintings are complete, the models no longer live in the paintings as themselves. I see something bigger in them, something more symbolic, an archetype. I paint things I want to see. I paint as a way of looking for myself in the world.”
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Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, right, poses for a photo with Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., where Sherald’s portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama was unveiled Monday, Feb. 12.
Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, right, poses for a photo with Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., where Sherald’s portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama was unveiled Monday, Feb.
12. (Christopher Bedford / HANDOUT)
Read about the unveiling of her portrait of Michelle Obama; what people said about her portrait of Michelle Obama; how Sherald has been adjusting to the new national spotlight; and the story behind the artist.
The former First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to commission the Baltimore painter Amy Sherald for her official portrait was intriguing. Like the former President Barack Obama’s choice of the painter Kehinde Wiley for his own portrait, it was a demonstration of discriminating taste; these paintings, in the eclectic Smithsonian halls, will relate more easily to Douglas Chandor’s study of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s upper half and fiddling hands, the atomizing of Bill Clinton by Chuck Close, than to Robert A. Anderson’s conservative transcription of George W. Bush. Sherald and Wiley, the first black recipients of commissions from the National Portrait Gallery, are artists with points of view. Wiley is a glittering propagandist who catapults the common black man and the occasional black woman into historical environments of rearing equines and colonial fleur-de-lis tapestries. He placed Obama against his ancestral flora, “hyper-visible and yet always partly hidden,” as my colleague Vinson Cunningham writes.
Michelle Obama, as envisaged by the Baltimore artist Amy Sherald, has gray skin.
While celebrated by some as elegant, others failed to see the resemblance…
To some, the lack of racial verisimilitude may be intolerable. And yet this is how the subject would like posterity—young black girls especially, she said in a speech—to see her, through Sherald’s vision: as a herald of success. In this way, Sherald wondrously troubles assumptions about blackness and representation in portraiture. Looking at it, I thought for a moment of Kerry James Marshall’s portraits, especially his 1980 self-portrait, in which the artist depicts himself as an actual black void, only eyes and teeth gleaming. The phantasmic grayscale of Sherald’s painting makes one work to bring its subject to life—to remember what Michelle Obama has endured. From her husband’s first campaign she was scrutinized, even more than her husband, who was the one running—an appearance on “Larry King Live” had viewers nervous about her stridency. She was exhorted, by worriers of all races, to be soft. She had to give America fewer reasons to say ugly things, to make ugly cartoons. It is undeniable that there was a shift in how she was marketed. Commercials de-emphasized Michelle Obama’s legal career—in fact, it was she who had mentored Barack, not the other way around—and pushed her domestic identity as a mother. The tenure of the first black First Lady was defined by her no-nonsense charm, her easy beauty, her rhetorical gifts, her championing of healthy meals for the young and the poor. She had a long-lasting emotional effect on millions of people. And then she had to hand the baton to Melania Trump. One wonders what the sitter divulged to the portraitist, who has experienced her own trials—deaths in the family, a heart transplant. One wonders how the years in the White House—which, Michelle Obama reminded the country, had been built by slaves—affected her.
WASHINGTON — Although their paths crossed more than two centuries ago, Benjamin Banneker — a free black Marylander — and Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president — were not considered equals because of slavery.
Sherald’s painting, along with a portrait of the former president created by the New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley, was revealed at a presentation attended by both artists, the Obamas, and celebrity guests including Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Gayle King and former Vice President Joseph Biden.
At one time, the Baltimore artist Amy Sherald intended to paint a portrait of herself as the Tin Man from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
“My portraits definitely connect to those photographs,” she said.
At the Smithsonian unveiling, Michelle Obama and the forty-four-year-old Sherald together pulled down brown wraps to expose a painting of shocking mystery. It is a portrait of the first black First Lady in an abundant gown, designed by one of her favorites, Michelle Smith for Milly. Smith, in an interview with Vogue, has said that the dress’s “clean, minimal geometric print” is “without a reference to anything past or nostalgic” and is “forward-thinking,” like Obama herself. But at the lectern, introducing the six-by-five-foot “ ‘Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,’ oil on linen, 2018,” Sherald said that the shapes reminded her of Mondrian, and the diligent quilt-making of the black women artisans of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. “My approach to portraiture is conceptual,” she said. Obama herself emphasized that she did not come from the sort of family that had had members sit for portraits. As a variation of the classical American pioneer, she sought out Sherald to translate what being the first meant to her.