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President Barack Obama
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Arty Fact

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Never has the internet had so many opinions about presidential and first lady portraits than that of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

The paintings created art critics out of the masses overnight. Among the several significant reasons these paintings deserve attention, is simply the fact that they fed the American nostalgia for the less chaotic days when Obama held office. Just for a moment, everyone found an escape in February 2018 in the paintings.

The portrait of Barack Obama is painted by Kehinde Wiley, the first queer African-American artist to be commissioned for an official presidential portrait. Just another one of many firsts for Obama’s presidential term. The significance of this portrait and the artist’s heritage is not lost on us. Wiley has been a well known artist in his own right, known for his paintings incorporating ordinary black figures and people of color in elaborate compositions drawing directly from previous historical paintings. This painting was an interesting reversal of that theme. He had the task of painting one of the most famous political figures in contemporary history but in a rather casual way. The painting takes the seated presidential stance and adds a twist.

The casual pose is contrasted by the intense gaze, and the typically masculine portrait is juxtaposed with flowers, usually associated with femininity. Staying true to his style, Wiley’s painting is rife with symbolism. Each flower points to specific biographical information about President Obama. The white jasmines rep Obama’s birthplace and childhood in Hawaii, the chrysanthemums pay tribute to Chicago, where Obama began his political career, and the African blue lilies refer to his father’s Kenyan heritage. While some have dismissed his pose as too “conventional”, the painting is far from it.  

Presidential portraits in the past have also featured symbolic objects. Usually they are holding paper or surrounded by stacks of books as they are important men who must return their attention to the important mess of papers on their desks immediately. This standing-by-the-desk motif borrows from a long tradition of European royalty also posing by desks overflowing with papers, like The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries. The most scandalous of symbols in a presidential portrait goes to Nelson Shanks’ portrait of Bill Clinton. The artist painted Clinton in a pose as quirky as the president’s personality but later revealed he added a little something else in the painting. Like Clinton’s presidency, the painting is tinged by the shadow of a blue dress, reflecting the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

The choice of artists for the Obama portraits was clearly intentional and this has done much to elevate both Wiley and Amy Sherald to the forefront of American art. Likewise, the Obamas were also the first presidential couple to bring contemporary art into the White House. Despite that one comment the president made about the art history job market, it is clear that he is a pretty big fan of art and art history.

 

Sources

Sources

  1. Cummins, Eleanor. “The botany in Obama’s official portrait represents his history.” Popular Science. February 19, 2018. https://www.popsci.com/flower-symbolism-barack-obama-portrait
  2. Davis, Ben. “Bad News: Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of Barack Obama Is a Bummer,” Artnet, February 13, 2018. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/barack-obama-portrait-kehinde-wiley-12...
  3. Graham, David A., “In a Bill Clinton Portrait, the Devil's in a Blue Dress.” The Atlantic. March 2, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/03/the-subtle-sat...
  4. Parker, Rebecca. “Inside President Obama’s Art Collection that Changed the White House History.” Art Report. February 15, 2018. http://artreport.com/inside-president-obamas-art-collection-that-changed...
  5. “The Obama’s Presidential Portraits.” Art History Babes. Podcast audio. February 22, 2018. https://www.arthistorybabes.com/episode-79-art-history-bb-andy-warhol

Featured Content

Here is what Wikipedia says about President Barack Obama (painting)

President Barack Obama is a 2018 portrait of Barack Obama by the artist Kehinde Wiley for the National Portrait Gallery.

Overview

In October 2017, it was announced that Wiley had been chosen by Barack Obama to paint an official portrait of the former president to appear in Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery "America's Presidents" exhibition. The painting depicts Obama sitting in a chair seemingly floating among foliage. The foliage is described by the author as "chrysanthemums (the official flower of Chicago), jasmine (symbolic of Hawaii where the president spent most of his childhood) and African blue lilies (alluding to the president's late Kenyan father)." Reacting to the unveiling of his portrait Obama said: "How about that? That's pretty sharp",The Washington Post described the painting as "not what you'd expect and that's why it's great".

Together with Amy Sherald's portrait of Michelle Obama, the paintings were first exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery on February 12, 2018. Both portraits mark the first time two African-American artists were commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about President Barack Obama (painting).

Comments (1)

Francisco

"I promise you folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree," Obama said in his speech, which was focused on better aligning job training programs with employer needs. "Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don't want to get a bunch of e-mails from everybody."