Obama Portrait

Obama Portrait

Artist Amy Sherald painted the official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama.

I’ve greatly enjoyed hearing from many of you who have shared your thoughtful responses, either written or in conversation, to my column last week on the portraits of former President and First Lady Obama that were recently unveiled in Washington, D.C.

The reactions I’ve heard have been mixed, as they should be, particularly with the different styles evident in these portraits. What’s really important, however, is that people are talking about them, having opinions and, in some cases, realizing that art is indeed something that they can care about enough to weigh in on. That’s a great discovery.

Despite their apparent simplicity, portraits can be one of the most complex types of painting with which to interact, in part because we encounter them with the preconceived notion that a successful one will look just like the person it presumes to portray.

When one doesn’t, we’re likely to think of it as falling short of the mark. I think this is the reason many people who spoke with me said that while they liked Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama, the one of the first lady by painted by Amy Sherald didn’t set as well.

It’s true that portraits can record how our faces appear at any one time. But they also have the power to show that we, as individuals, are much more than simply what we look like. That’s one of the achievements of a portrait painted by an insightful artist as opposed to a mere photograph.

Amy Sherald has been thinking about art in one form or another most of her life. She remembers that almost as soon as she started writing sentences, she drew little pictures at the ends of them. “Whatever was in the sentence, I’d draw it,” she recalled. A school field trip provided her first visit to an art museum, and by high school she was thinking of herself as an artist. After she graduated from college she waited tables to support her artistic career.

Her big breakthrough came in 2016, when she won the National Portrait Gallery’s triennial “Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition” with a painting wonderfully entitled “Miss Everything.” Dorothy Moss, associate curator of painting and sculpture at the NPG, said “we were all stunned by the fresh approach that Amy was taking to portraiture,” and a Baltimore Sun critic said that her portraits “pull viewers in from across the room. Her subjects are African-American, but Sherald paints their skin in shades of gray. The charcoal flesh makes more vibrant objects — a two-piece yellow bathing suit, a red yarn wig — pop like fire-crackers.” Later that year her painting “Innocent You, Innocent Me” was featured on the cover of the September 2016 issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

By the time she received the commission to paint Ms. Obama, Sherald’s style was fully developed. In all her portraits her intention is to reveal something deeper than mere appearance: Here she seeks to show qualities of grace, composure and inner beauty. In a way, those things are the actual subject of the work and Ms. Obama’s presence in the portrait, her contribution to it as the sitter, amounts to her participation in something bigger and more complex.

This May, Sherald will open a three-month exhibition of her portraits at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, a show well worth seeing.

The arts matter because “they help us see who we really are,” she once remarked in an interview with the National Endowment for the Arts. That’s what a great portrait can do, even if it doesn’t look exactly how we look in the mirror.