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Why the Obamas’ Portrait Choices Matter

The current landscape for figurative painting includes scores of talented artists, from established figures like Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas and Henry Taylor, to emerging ones like Jordan Casteel, Aliza Nisenbaum and Louis Fratino, as well as Njideka Akunyili-Crosby (who was just awarded a MacArthur genius grant). The added prominence of Ms. Sherald and Mr. Wiley can only push this lively conversation forward.


A woman has her picture taken in front of a diptych of President Barack Obama by Chuck Close at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, two days before Mr. Obama’s second inauguration.

Nicholas Kamm/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The first step in the process began during the last year of Mr. Obama’s presidency and was finalized before he left the White House, Ms. Sajet said. The Obamas saw the work of about 20 artists submitted by the Portrait Gallery, with each portfolio presented in a thick notebook.

The artworks will be unveiled in early 2018, when they will go on view at the Gallery. Since the presidency of George H.W. Bush, official portraits have been paid for with private funds, mostly from big donors who will be acknowledged in media materials and credited in labels, said Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman at the Smithsonian Institution. The Obama portraits will cost $500,000 (including the unveiling event and a reserve for future care). About $300,000 has been raised. Ms. Sajet declined to say whether the artists were paid the same for the commissions.

Mr. Wiley, who was born in Los Angeles in 1977, is adept at heroicizing his subjects — some of whom he found through open calls or simply by approaching people on the street. He endows them with the poses and gestures of kings and nobles borrowed from portraits by Velázquez, Holbein, Manet and Titian and also sets them against bold, sometimes jarring patterns of rich brocades, Dutch wax fabrics or Liberty’s wallpaper. One of his most reproduced works is an equestrian portrait of Michael Jackson that recycles Velazquez’s portrait of King Philip II mounted on a white charger while a battle rages in the distance.


“After Memling’s Portrait of Man with a Coin of the Emperor Nero” (2013), by Kehinde Wiley.

Byron Smith for The New York Times

Mr. Wiley’s flamboyant portraits of men, in particular, give them a worldly power and often a gravitas that they don’t necessarily possess in real life. That is part of his work’s irreverent, perspective-altering force. It will be fascinating to see if Mr. Wiley rises to the occasion of painting a world leader like former President Obama, who already has a big place in history and plenty of dignity.

If flamboyance is not the best way to go, Mr. Wiley certainly has alternatives, as exemplified by his more restrained half-portraits based on the work of the Northern Renaissance painter Hans Memling, including “After Memling’s Portrait of a Man With a Coin of the Emperor Nero,” now in the Phoenix Art Museum. Mr. Wiley has at times delegated painting to assistants in the manner of a Renaissance master. It seems safe to assume that this is one commission he will tackle himself.

Ms. Sherald, is far less known. Born in Columbus, Ga., in 1973, she now lives in Baltimore, where she earned an M.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art. She decided at an early age to become a painter. In a profile in The Washington Post last year, she cited as the beginning of that journey catching sight, on a sixth-grade museum trip, of “Object Permanence,” a family portrait by the painter Bo Bartlett (also Georgia-born, but now Maine-based) in which the artist, who is white, painted himself as a black man. Her career has been interrupted by three years spent nursing ailing family members and another year to recover from her own heart transplant, in her early 30s.


The artist Kadir Nelson, in 2014. His portrait of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, is in the collection of the House of Representatives.

David Walter Banks for The New York Times

In 2016 Ms. Sherald became the first woman to win the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Curators added Ms. Sherald to the list for the Obamas “at the very last minute,” Ms. Sajet said.

Like Mr. Wiley, Ms. Sherald paints portraits of African-Americans by working both from photographs and live models, and feeding off painting’s traditions, if in a more straightforward way.

Her figures appear before solid fields of color reminiscent of Manet and also Barkley L. Hendricks (1945-2017), who silhouetted his tall, thin, stylishly dressed African-Americans against bright backgrounds.

Ms. Sherald’s subjects, on the other hand, are mostly young and come in all shapes and sizes. Her images play black and white against color in different ways, most obviously in the skin tones, which are painted on the gray scale. This recalls old photographs but mainly gives the figures a slight remove from the rest of the painting, one that also signals their awareness of the obstacles to their full participation in American life. This simple device introduces the notion of double consciousness, the phrase coined by W.E.B. DuBois to describe the condition of anyone living with social and economic inequality.

Double consciousness may be inevitable in portraits of people outside the power structure. It is certainly present in Mr. Wiley’s portraits and it is a likely bet that it will figure in official portraits of groundbreaking leaders like the Obamas.

A precedent for such portrayals can be found in the proud sardonic oil portrait of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the United States Congress, from New York’s 12th Congressional District. It is by the African-American artist and illustrator Kadir Nelson and is in the collection of the House of Representatives. Rest assured there will be more such official portraits in the years to come.

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