Both of the Obama paintings, aside from depicting the first African Americans in the Presidential Gallery, are also the first paintings commissioned by African American artists.
Barack’s painting was painted by Kehinde Wiley, a famous contemporary painter known for painting African Americans in everyday life and putting them in powerful poses. In one of his paintings, he illustrated a middle-aged African American with a big t-shirt and Timberland boots while riding a war horse.
Central Connecticut State University’s Art Professor Jennifer Kanous is a specialized portrait artist and long-time Wiley fan.
“I remember seeing Kehinde work 15 years ago while he was a graduate art student in Yale and finding his work so interesting. It’s incredible to see that he was chosen to do the portrait of Obama,” Kanous said.
During the ceremony, Barack Obama jokingly stated, “I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow [him] to do what I asked.”
Courtney Silvia, a CCSU art student, agreed with Wiley’s artistic decision to not change Obama’s features.
“As an artist, I don’t think I would be able to change someone’s features, even if they requested it. It is a lot of pressure to paint a portrait of someone, and as an artist even the smallest highlight or stroke can completely change a person’s facial characteristic,” Silvia said.
In comparison to the other pieces in the presidential gallery, Wiley’s and Amy Sherald’s, the artist who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait, are the most contemporary and modern ones in the exhibit.
“Kehinde’s work is hyper realistic and majestic, it is definitely going to give the portrait gallery a contemporary piece that will pop,” Kanous said.
Obama appears sitting in a chair with arms folded across his lap. The painting depicts him surrounded by bright green vines peppered with buds of jasmine, chrysanthemums, and lilies to represent the different parts of him. Wiley used flowers native to Hawaii, Illinois and Kenya, respectively, to connect these three significant places of his life in the painting.
“Its really amazing and telling at how [Wiley] kept to his traditional style of patterning and vegetation. I think that’s what makes him so unique, the natural elements he includes in his work is stuff that has never been done before,” Silvia said.
In contrast to Barack Obama’s painting, Michelle Obama’s portrait depicts her skin color in a gray scale, the opposite of Wiley’s interpretation of Barack’s skin palette.
“The flesh tones in Kehinde’s work always stands out to me, you can see how the lighting shows all those different skin tones. It’s almost like Kehinde made an effort to show off all of his artistry skills in this piece with all the different artistry elements he used,” Silvia said.
Portraits are not only meant to show your facial characteristic, but also interpret characteristics of personality.
“Kehinde’s piece allows you to see Obama’s exterior and interior features, very clearly, for example you can see how his face looks very pensive and the way his hands are folded together,” Rachel Siporin, CCSU Art Department Chair, said.
Barack Obama’s portrait will be hung in the Presidential Gallery of the Smithsonian, while Michelle’s will be hung in the First Lady’s Gallery; both pieces are already on display to the public at Smithsonian.