Regardless of your political beliefs or feelings about Barack Obama’s presidency, he and his wife, Michelle, have transformed the hopes of generations of Black Americans and our country’s assumptions about what a US President looks like.
The impact and significance of these changes are reflected visually in the portraits of the nation’s first black President and First Lady. Painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, they are on view at the de Young Museum until August 14, one stop on a tour of the works across the country. Fittingly, the portraits premiered in San Francisco over the weekend of June 16, the one-year anniversary of the tour’s start.
“The Obama portraits, by definition, made history because they depict the first black president and first lady,” said Timothy Anglin Burgard, Ednah Root Curator-in-Charge of American Art at de Young. “But they also made history by bringing to the table the concerns of cutting-edge contemporary art, on the subject of portraiture of the President.”
They stand out in their own right as paintings depicting the first black president and his wife and the first portraits of the president created by African-American artists. However, the style of the paintings — how the Obamas pose and the colors used — also set the portraits apart.
“Where we used to see the differences in political parties among different presidents (portraits), it’s now easier to see that they all represent one system,” explained Burgard. “And that system has marginalized black people and many other people of color.”
Burgard points out that at least 12 US presidents have enslaved blacks, and nearly all previous presidential portraits appear to share a kinship.
“They want to look alike because they want to be part of that system,” Burgard said. “And they want to be part of that history and visual genealogy of the founding fathers and their descendants, even if none of them are related.”
Before the Obamas, most presidential portraits were done in a similar style, with a traditional pose that conveys power and a color palette of browns or sepia tones with blue casts. “It’s these very important men at their desks doing very important things,” Burgard said.
The exception was the portrait of John F. Kennedy, painted by Elaine de Kooning, the first woman to paint a presidential portrait. She painted Kennedy outdoors, eyes down, away from the viewer, and with his arms thoughtfully folded. Sweeping brushstrokes blur the images slightly – an allusion to contemporary painting. But this portrait also retained the traditional color palette.
In contrast, Obama’s portrait uses a much wider range of colors. Far brighter than those of its predecessors, it captures him in a tangle of lush green tendrils with pink and purple flowers, redefining how light and color are used to define power, leadership, masculinity and heritage. Burgard sees the flowers and leaves as symbolic of “the dawn of a new era and the blossoming of a nation that can finally elect its first black president.”
Each type of flower is a symbol of Obama’s legacy and his path to the presidency: purple African lilies represent his Kenyan heritage; yellow and orange chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago, his hometown; pink rosebuds are a universal symbol of love and courage; and white jasmine represents Obama’s birthplace in Hawaii.
First Ladies’ pre-Obama portraits also have a traditional approach. Her subjects are generally painted with rosy, youthful cheeks or show matronly dismay. These were also done in muted tones and showed the First Ladies with demure, withdrawn facial expressions. They rarely looked directly at the viewer.
The portrait of Michelle Obama, on the other hand, conveys a sense of personal power. “I think Amy Sherold wanted all of us who encounter her portrait to not only consider (Michelle Obama’s) public figure as an extraordinary, real woman and role model, but also to think about the effect that (public perception) had on her. “
Her portrait, painted in black and white on a blue background, is neither rosy-cheeked nor matronly. Obama’s hair is full and cascades down her bare arms, which have often been the subject of divisive discussions. Her eyebrow is furrowed in skepticism and her lips are slightly parted as if standing on the brink of a question. She seems unafraid of the disapproval or criticism she faced during her husband’s eight-year tenure.
The Obama Portraits Tour marks the first time that two presidential portraits will be presented in their own exhibition at locations across the country. Previously, portraits were loaned for events and special exhibitions as part of larger exhibitions, but otherwise paintings of the President typically remain at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC
“As is often the case with major art shows like this, they probably won’t be traveling for the next 10 or 20 years,” Burgard said. “So it’s really a rare opportunity for people to see the portraits in the Bay Area.”
“The Obama Portraits Tour”: 9:30am-5:15pm Tuesday-Sunday. On view until August 14th. $6-15. De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, SF 415-750-3600. deyoung.famsf.org
Art, Fashion and Activism with Youth Art Exchange: Pop-up art exhibition featuring hands-on art, a fashion show and live music by Youth Art Exchange (YAX) students. 11am-4pm Saturday 30 July. For free. De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, SF 415-750-3600. deyoung.famsf.org
Poetry and Storytelling with the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate Program and 826 Valencia: Featuring zine-making activities, poetry readings and a pop-up library. 11am-4pm Aug 6th. For free. De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, SF 415-750-3600. deyoung.famsf.org