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Obamas' official portraits revealed at the Smithsonian

14 February 2018

Designer Michelle Smith was standing in the middle of a jean shop in the Marais neighborhood of Paris when her publicist called to tell her that Michelle Obama's official portrait had been unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery and the former first lady was wearing Smith's dress in the painting.

The depictions of President Barack and Former First Lady Michelle Obama are getting a lot of love but also harsh criticism since Monday's unveiling.

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A piece in The New Yorker described Wiley as "a glittering propagandist who catapults the common black man and the occasional black woman into historical environments of rearing equines and colonial fleur-de-lis tapestries". He was hyper-visible and yet always partly hidden. Realistic renderings are also seen as a bit retardataire in some corners, so Sherald's painting may be deemed out of step with contemporary art fixations. She focuses on African-Americans and renders them with great psychological intimacy. Her face nearly appears in a style more common in the 19th century, especially how black women were presented in art, but her dress is modern.

Toledo's work was more rarefied, reflecting Obama's elevation to unique circumstances.

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Smith said Obama doesn't have the exact iteration of the dress worn on the runway, but a "more discreet" version with the same corset-style lacing.

"Milly's design also resembles the inspired quilt masterpieces made by the women of Gee's Bend, a small remote black community in Alabama where they compose quilts in geometries that transform clothes and fabric remnants into masterpieces", she said. She is distinct from all the other First Ladies to come before her. "This is why Sherald and Wiley were chosen", she added of the artists. "Sherald's approach is more about artistic expression and composition than about realism". It's a sharp reminder that she was someone before she was an Obama.

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As in Sherald's previous paintings of African American subjects, Michelle Obama appears poised and powerful as she looks down on the viewer. Both artists have addressed the politics of race consistently in their past work, and both have done so in subtly savvy ways in these new commissions. So, it's hardly surprising that Kehinde Wiley's rendering of Barack Obama has been met with a set of responses as varied and eclectic as the painter's own influences. This is a different Michelle, a woman evacuated of celebrity, who appears provisionally dreamlike, almost a shadow. From some distance, I can imagine, the figure might not be immediately recognizable. Nor does Sherald, who often depicts her subjects with some curiously evocative object (a bunch of balloons or a model ship) that creates a dreamlike atmosphere, emphasize the phantasmagorical in her portrait of Michelle Obama. "Quilting is a huge part of black culture", Sherald says. In one hand, she holds a knife.

Obamas' official portraits revealed at the Smithsonian