The official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama are in — and they aren’t quite like anything else in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. This is because the Obamas chose two of the hottest young artists in portraiture for their official paintings, and it shows. So If you didn’t know artist Kehinde Wiley before, you will now: He’s the painter behind former President Barack Obama’s stunning official portrait, which was unveiled yesterday.
The Wiley was born South Central, Los Angeles in 1977, where he was raised by a single mother and was one of six siblings. His father is from Nigeria and his mother was a linguist, and he grew up surrounded by books. Wiley took his first art lesson at age 11, and at age 12, in 1989, Wiley was one of 50 American children who went to live in Russia at the Center for U.S./U.S.S.R. Initiatives. There, he studied art and Russian language. He eventually attended the San Francisco Art Institute and studied art in graduate school at Yale. Wiley’s most famous paintings place black bodies in the heroic poses of some of the most famous portraits in the Western canon: Michael Jackson as King Philip II, Ice T as Napoleon, unknown and unrecognizable black men as Chancellor Pierre Séguier and his retinue.
With his Obama portrait, Wiley moves away from a literal reimagining of a specific painting. Obama’s chair bears a certain resemblance to the chair in Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portrait of George Washington, as Holland Cotter pointed out at the New York Times, and his hunched-over, thoughtful pose echoes the lines of Rodin’s Thinker. But the forceful, engaged expression is specific to Obama, and so is the iconography around him (the blue flowers are for Kenya, the jasmine for Hawaii, and the chrysanthemums for Chicago, per Cotter). It has the aesthetic effect of a baroque portrait, but all the signifiers are vital and original.
They’re also as much about Wiley as they are Obama. The vines and flowers behind Obama represent his background, but they’re also characteristic of Wiley’s work, which tends to feature a forcefully posing human subject in front of an organic, richly textured, colour-saturated background. Wiley thinks of the resulting tension as fundamental to his work, as he told the New York Times in 2015: “For me the landscape is the irrational. Nature is the woman. Nature is the black, the brown, the other.” He added, “That’s the logic behind it, but everyone has their own sort of reading.” Not only did Obama become the first African-American president to have a portrait hang in the National Portrait Gallery, but Wiley became the first African-American artist to paint an official presidential portrait.
Former first lady Michelle Obama’s portrait was painted by Amy Sherald, an African-American artist based in Baltimore, Maryland. Michelle Obama’s portrait was also revealed to the public on Monday, and it will hang on the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery until November.