Portraiture has often been used to visually convey a subject’s power using stylistic devices and references to wealth, rank, status, and to the tradition of works that precede them. Portraits have for millennia underscored the rank, privilege, and office of their subjects in political, ecclesiastical, mercantile, and cultural life.
Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley have distinct approaches to portraiture while simultaneously addressing core themes of racial identity, marginalization, and power/powerlessness. Their fresh and signature approaches to portraiture led the Obamas to select Wiley to create the Portrait of President Barack Obama and Sherald to depict Mrs. Michelle Obama. The resulting portraits convey the humanity and personal strength of these political figures rather than dwelling, as might be more traditional, on the trappings of power and office.
Born in Columbus, Georgia, and now based in the New York City area, Amy Sherald documents contemporary African American experience in the United States through figuration. Sherald engages with the history of photography and portraiture, inviting viewers to participate in a more complex debate about accepted notions of race and representation, and to situate Black heritage centrally in American art. She was commissioned to paint a portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery.
“It’s [the portrait of Michelle Obama] become something that’s almost really sacred. I’ve kind of invisibly hung out there while people were looking. It’s almost like when you walk into one of those spaces where you’re like. I’m whispering, but I’m not sure why I’m whispering.’ But you kind of feel like you should, like you’ve entered into a different space.”—Amy Sherald
Kehinde Wiley is an American portrait painter based in New York City, who is known for his highly naturalistic paintings of Black people, frequently referencing the work of Old Master paintings. He was commissioned in 2017 to paint a portrait of former President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, which houses portraits of all previous American presidents.
“Prior to…Barack Obama, my work was so much about painting the powerless. Painting those people who come from many of the Black and brown underserved communities throughout the world. What I did was ask complete strangers (who were often on their way to work or minding their own business) to sit for me, to be in these portraits. And oftentimes, these moments of chance would turn into epic-scale paintings that you would see in some of the great museums throughout the world. Here [in the portrait of Barack Obama] you’re dealing with arguably the most powerful person in the world. And you’re dealing with actual power. Not metaphorical, but its depiction. And you’re talking about the contours of and the historical realization of grace, of power, in its most visceral and raw form.”—Kehinde Wiley