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Why what you think about the Obamas' National Portrait Gallery paintings doesn't matter | Elizabeth Wellington

Barack and Michelle Obama's official portraits unveiled Monday at the National Portrait Gallery are the final piece of presidential legacy marked by breaking the staid mold.

Former first lady Michelle Obama and former President Barack Obama pose with artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald during the unveiling of their official portraits at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday, February 12, 2018, in Washington, D.C.
Former first lady Michelle Obama and former President Barack Obama pose with artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald during the unveiling of their official portraits at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday, February 12, 2018, in Washington, D.C.Read moreOlivier Douliery

When I first saw the paintings of Barack and Michelle Obama on Monday morning that were commissioned for the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery, I thought, "Wow."

Then came, "I'm not so sure about this."

Artist Kehinde Wiley's majestic floral interpretation of  Barack Obama — coolly leaning forward, legs apart in an ornate hardback chair, sans tie — is not particularly presidential, is it? Shouldn't he be in a library? Shouldn't the Capitol be a shadowy figure in the background? I wanted him to look more austere.

His face, albeit rendered older, does look like him. Right down to the ears.

I wasn't sure what to make of  Baltimore artist Amy Sherald's Michelle Obama, either. The former first lady dons a phenomenal geometric halter gown by New York designer Michelle Smith for Milly in Obama's grayscale portrait. But where is the definition in her arms? Where is her 100-watt smile? The hair is almost right. But quite frankly, she looks more like Kerry Washington than Mrs. O.

Still, I continued to stare. And stare. And stare. And then it slowly started to make sense.

These portraits — the first ever to be commissioned by African American artists for the National Portrait Gallery — aren't about me and how I want to remember the Obamas. Nor are they about you, or how you want to see them.

They are the final piece of a legacy marked by breaking the mold. They are innovative. They are a shout-out to the Obamas' beautifully unconventional way of bending the rules.

When Barack Obama's lifesize portrait takes its rightful place in the Portrait Gallery's America's Presidents exhibition, it will stand out in a sea of staid, oil-on-canvas sameness. Wiley, a 40-year-old portraitist whose work has been featured on Empire, is known for his paintings of everyday folks and rappers — from Biggie Smalls to Big Daddy Kane — placed in regal garb like Old Masters did, and sitting in larger than life backgrounds. Obama asked Wiley to tone down the grandeur, so instead of placing him on a Napoleonic horse, Wiley placed our former president at the center of a mess of blooming foliage.

The floral background was deliberate. According to Wiley, the flowers are chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago; jasmine, a shrub native to Obama's childhood home in Hawaii; and the African blue lily, a nod to the former president's Kenyan father.

Now picture all that unconventional coolness in a gallery filled with portraits of presidents past from Gilbert Stuart's George Washington (otherwise known as the Lansdowne portrait) to Robert W. Anderson's painting of his Yale classmate George W. Bush. There's a flavor never seen in an official presidential portrait before.

"It's fantastic in the sense that it disrupts the very stiff uniformity of the white, middle-aged elderly man," said Ken Lum, chairman of the department of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's both reverential and highly irreverent at the same time."

Sherald's Michelle Obama is also a modern take on a classic fine art endeavor. Her portrait will also hang in the Smithsonian, but exactly where is yet to be determined. In 2016, Sherald won the Smithsonian's Outwin Boochever Portraiture Competition. University of Pennsylvania art history professor Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw, who wrote an essay for the competition's catalog, said Sherald's distinct style clearly connected with Michelle Obama. After all, a portrait is a negotiation between the sitter and the artist.

Sherald "has a tendency to idealize her sitters in a way that does soften their features," Shaw told me. "It is also abstract in a way that is not unlike great illustrators in the past. It's not photo-realistic."

While the portrait was spot on in capturing her elegance, the gravitas of Michelle Obama was somewhat lost.

"If it was supposed to be a photograph, they would have commissioned a photograph, not a painting," Shaw said.

Whatever you may think of the works, both portraits, Lum said, balk at the conventional system of representation when it comes to presidential portraiture. Both  reveal aspects of the former president and first lady's personalities, a no-no in classic pictures. He's portrayed as being thoughtful but approachable, while she reveals a vulnerability that she could not show during her tenure in the White House.

At the same time, the settings — in the president's, it's the flowers; the first lady's, it's the voluminous gown — are up for interpretation. In other words, Lum said, this use of iconography engages the viewer. Both pictures don't rely on neutral color schemes to tell the same story. And most important, Lum said, the viewer is empowered to create dialogue around the works. There is no right or wrong interpretation.

"There was a lot of pressure for the Obamas to do the same old thing," Lum said. "Their choice to break the unwritten rules of portraiture was brave. It was different. And it will distinguish them."