INCREDIBLY INSPIRING, the Obama Portraits have garnered so much attention they are currently on a national tour, traveling to museums throughout the United States. The portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama painted by acclaimed artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively, were unveiled by the Smithsonian on Feb. 12, 2018. Commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery for its “American Presidents” exhibition and First Lady collection, the portraits are historic, marking the first time Black artists painted a presidential or first lady portrait for the museum.

As famous as those portraits of the Obamas have become, they are not the official portraits that will hang in the White House alongside other former presidents and first ladies. President Obama’s official White House portrait will be unveiled tomorrow (Sept. 7) at a White House ceremony hosted by President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden. Mrs. Obama’s portrait will also be revealed at the event. The name of the artist(s) commissioned to paint the portraits has not been made public. The artist(s) will be announced tomorrow.

 


Feb. 12, 2018: From left, Artist Kehinde Wiley, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and artist Amy Sherald, stand before newly unveiled portraits at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.. | © 2018 Pete Souza, Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

 

Who did the Obamas choose? Did they work with one artist or two? Unlike the creatively inspired museum portraits, the White House versions are historically more traditional, staid, and straightforward. Visual cues such color, clothing, and stance, along with books, flags, and other objects are employed to symbolize and project the subject’s persona, accomplishments, and intended legacy. Experienced artists whose subjects tend toward U.S. presidents, cabinet secretaries, judges, members of Congress, other elected and government officials, CEOs, and university presidents are ordinarily selected for the honor.

Bill and Hillary Clinton commissioned artist Simmie Knox to paint their portraits, upon the recommendation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. When former President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton’s portraits were unveiled at the White House in 2004, Knox became the first Black artist to paint official White House portraits.

(Only three women artists have been commissioned for an official White House Presidential portrait: Harriet Anderson Stubbs Murphy painted William McKinley in 1902; Martha Greta Kempton depicted Harry S. Truman in 1947; and Elizabeth Shoumatoff portrayed Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968.)

Based in Silver Spring, Md., Knox’s work is favored by many high-ranking public officials. He has painted the official portraits of Ginsburg, fellow Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) and Hugo L. Black (1886-1971), Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., New York Governor Mario Cuomo (1932-2015), former Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert, and many others.

Have the Obamas chosen Knox or another artist(s) who is little known or has an established practice making portraits of prominent public figures? Or did they decide to work again with a critically recognized contemporary artist(s), shaking up the process, which is organized by the White House Historical Society?

As famous as the Obama portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have become, they are not the official portraits that will hang in the White House alongside other former presidents and first ladies.

Well-regarded contemporary artists have ventured recently into the elected official portrait space. Kadir Nelson, who has illustrated numerous covers of The New Yorker, made a 2008 portrait of pioneering New York Congresswoman and Presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) that resides in the collection of the U.S. House of Representatives. Baltimore artist Jerrell Gibbs painted the official portrait of late Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) that was installed at the U.S. Capitol earlier this year.

In 2020, Jordan Casteel painted a portrait of President Obama, under different circumstances. It was not a government portrait, but one commissioned by The Atlantic to accompany a magazine article about his much-anticipated book, “Promised Land.” The close-cropped image captures Obama seemingly deep in thought. With his eyes cast downward, he is holding his chin in the palm of his hand. Focusing on the details of Obama’s face, the portrait is far from traditional.

 


June 18, 2012: From left, First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama. | Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, Courtesy Obama Foundation

 

My theory, and it’s a long shot, is that President Obama asked Kerry James Marshall to paint his official White House portrait. The Chicago artist lives and works in the same city where Obama honed his community organizing chops, first pursued elective politics, and is now developing his Presidential Center, which includes a museum.

Marshall and the Obamas have several public connections. In 2013, during his second term in the White House, President Obama named Marshall to the Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, for which Mrs. Obama served as honorary chair. When “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” the artist’s 35-year retrospective was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2016, he gave Mrs. Obama a personal tour. After the Obamas left the White House, Mrs. Obama made a video in her personal office where a work from Marshall’s ongoing “Vignettes” series can be seen on display.

My theory, and it’s a long shot, is that President Obama asked artist Kerry James Marshall to paint his official White House portrait.

Marshall is arguably one of America’s great artists. “Mastry” traveled to major museums in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles to glowing reviews. At auction, Marshall holds the record for the most expensive work by a living African American artist ($21.1 million).

Last year, Marshall painted a portrait of professor and author Henry Louis Gates Jr. The artist is known for using Black paint to portray Black figures. He rendered his image of Gates using a shade of brown that represented his natural skin tone. Marshall did the same with his own skin, in a self portrait for the New York Times in 2016, when its T Magazine declared the artist one of The Greats of American culture.

Both rare instances, the Gates portrait was a further departure because of its documentary quality. Marshall depicted the public intellectual with an Emmy award and a small stack of books on the table beside him, illustrating his achievements.

As I noted at the time, Marshall doesn’t ordinarily paint traditional portraits. He makes powerful artistic portraits and sweeping narrative scenes that center Black subjects and challenge Western art history. He has stated repeatedly that the goal of his practice is to integrate the canon with complex images of the African American experience and see large-scale paintings of Black people on the walls of major art museums.

A portrait of the first Black president displayed prominently in the White House aligns quite nicely with Marshall’s longstanding mission. CT

 

UPDATE (09/07/22): Kerry James Marshall did not paint the Obamas’s White House portraits. Two white artists landed the opportunity. Robert McCurdy was commissioned to make President’s Obama’s striking and non-traditional, hyper realistic portrait and Mrs. Obama’s elegant and engaging first lady portrait is by Sharon Sprung.

 

FIND MORE about tomorrow’s unveiling of President Obama’s official White House portrait here and here

FIND MORE about White House Presidential portraits over the years from the White House Historical Society

FIND MORE about artist Simmie Knox on his website

 

READ MORE about the Obamas’s dedication to art for change during their White House years on Culture Type

READ MORE about how the Obamas used art to make the White House feel like home on Culture Type

 

BOOKSHELF
“Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” accompanied Kerry James Marshall’s 35-year traveling retrospective. “The Obama Portraits” explores in-depth the making of the portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively.

 

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