From the moment of their unveiling at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in February 2018, the official portraits of President Barack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama became iconic. The artists behind the portraits, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, have throughout their careers addressed the lack of Black representation in Western art history, using portraiture to explore complex issues of identity. Wiley and Sherald are the first African Americans to be commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to create official portraits of a president or first lady.
This nationwide tour is expected to reach millions who might not otherwise have an opportunity to view these remarkable paintings. The de Young is thrilled to be part of this special presentation highlighting the power of portraiture and its potential to engage communities.
The portraits previously visited the Art Institute of Chicago, Brooklyn Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. After their San Francisco presentation, they’ll make their final stop at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, before heading back home to the National Portrait Gallery.
In their own words
Kehinde Wiley was born in Los Angeles in 1977 to an African American mother and a Nigerian father. He earned his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and his MFA from Yale University in 2001. Prior to painting Barack Obama’s portrait, Wiley was renowned for “street-casting” Black sitters from systemically under-resourced communities and for endowing their portraits with the scale, visual vocabularies, and symbolic rhetoric of Renaissance, baroque, and Romantic “Grand Manner” portraiture.
At the unveiling of his portrait of Barack Obama, Wiley reflected:
These big museums, like this, are dedicated to what we as a society hold most dear. Great curators, their jobs are to be the guardians of culture, to say this is what we as a people stand for. Growing up as a kid in South Central Los Angeles, going to the museums in LA, there weren’t too many people who happened to look like me on those walls. So, as the years go on and as I try to create my own type of work, it has to do with correcting for some of that. Trying to find places where people who look like me do feel accepted or do have the ability to express their state of grace on the grand narrative scale of museum space. . . . This is consequential, this is who we as a society decide to celebrate. This is our humanity, this is our ability to say: I matter. I was here. The ability to be the first African American painter to paint the first African American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming.
Amy Sherald was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1973. She earned her BA in painting from Clark Atlanta University and an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Through her portraits, she seeks to subvert stereotypical narratives about Black life and culture by shifting the viewer’s focus from collective concepts of identity to the unique inner lives of individuals. Since 2012, she has portrayed the skin tones of her subjects in monochromatic grayscale to neutralize the notion that skin tone is a racial determinant.
At the unveiling of her portrait of Michelle Obama, Sherald reflected:
I paint American people. And I tell American stories through the paintings I create. I find my models, I style them, and I photograph them. I then use that photograph as a reference. My approach to the portrait is conceptual. Once my paintings are complete, the model no longer lives in that painting as themselves. I see something bigger, more symbolic. An archetype. So approaching the commission with you as the subject of this painting is deeply connected to what I hold as my truth. This portrait delivers the same kind of symbolism. . . . [Mrs. Obama] you exist in our minds and our hearts in the way that you do because we can see ourselves in you. The act of Michelle Obama becoming her authentic self became a profound statement that engaged all of us. Because what you represent to this country is an ideal. A human being, with integrity, intellect, confidence, and compassion. And the paintings I create aspire to express these attributes. A message of humanity. And I like to think that they hold the same possibilities of being read universally.
At the unveiling of his portrait by Kehinde Wiley, former president Barack Obama remarked:
But what I was always struck by, whenever I saw his [Kehinde Wiley’s] portraits, was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege. And the way he would take extraordinary care, and precision, and vision in recognizing the beauty and the grace and the dignity of people who are so often invisible in our lives. And put them on a grand stage, on a grand scale. And force us to look and see them in ways that, so often, they were not. The people that Michelle referred to, people in our families, people who helped to build this country, the people who helped to build this capital, people who to this day are making sure this place is clean at night, and serving food, and taking out the garbage, and doing all the other stuff that makes this country work. So often out of sight and out of mind. Kehinde lifted them up and gave them a platform and said they belonged at the center of American life.
At the unveiling of her portrait by Amy Sherald, former first lady Michelle Obama remarked:
I’m also thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls, and girls of color — who in years ahead will come to this place, and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them, hanging on the wall of this great American institution. Yeah. And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls. And when I think about those future generations, and generations past, I think again — wow, wow. What an incredible journey we are on together in this country. We have come so far. And yes, as we see today, we still have a lot more work to do. But we have every reason to be hopeful and proud. And I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to stand alongside my husband and play a very small part in that history and in that future. But I’m even more proud of the extraordinary woman and artist who made this portrait possible, Amy Sherald.
On the opening day of The Obama Portraits Tour, we spoke to visitors about the impact of the portraits and the Obamas on the Black community.
The Obama Portraits Tour has been organized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.
Support for the national tour has been generously provided by Bank of America.
Support for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s presentation has been generously provided by
The Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund
The Bernard Osher Foundation
Rebecca and Cal Henderson
Bank of America
Sabrina Buell and Yves Béhar
Brook Hartzell and Tad Freese
Komal Shah and Gaurav Garg
Yieldstreet x Athena Art Finance
Free admission to The Obama Portraits Tour on June 18 and 19 was generously underwritten by Google.