Huzzah! We know you’ve been waiting for it. We know the suspense has had you twitching in anticipation. Now, here they are! The National Portrait Gallery’s portraits of President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle have been unveiled. Double huzzah!
Americans are accustomed to official portraits. They garnish our city halls, for example, and to the respectful observer bring to mind those who have assumed civil responsibilities and deserve honor—the honor, at least, of not having their portraits displayed in that other familiar location of civic pride: the post office. At least those enshrined on city hall walls rather than post office walls, earned their pride of place without criminality. At any rate, they’ve managed to avoid detection of their depredations.
Sometimes, the faces in these portraits seem beneficent, like Santa on Valium®. More often, they are dour, as if they suspect someone in the room may be a pickpocket. The older ones show faces adorned with long beards of a style still current among Amish farmers. The newer ones show the changing fashions of wider and narrower ties and lapels. Hairstyles evolve from Vaseline® Valentino-ism to crew cuts to the hirsute 70s sideburns and mustaches and then back to a more clippered and clean-shaven look. Eyeware varies from pince-nez to steel-rimmed to black plastic and back again to steel. As women advanced politically and joined the images, hair went from Debbie Reynolds’ smooth to country singer puffy then back to sedate with the occasional appearance of cat’s eye harlequin eyeglasses, to remind us of a kindly older aunt.
In pricier venues, paintings are displayed instead of photographs. This invites wrinkle-removing, ear-pinning, chin-tightening, etc. It’s enough to make you wonder if the Mona Lisa had a banana nose or if Picasso put all his girlfriend’s features on one side of her head because they didn’t look so hot when properly positioned.
Paintings have long lent themselves to political use. Napoleon loved Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David. It shows a handsome Bonaparte atop a rearing charger, a symbol of military glory, gesturing onward and upward. Presumably, after reaching the top of those mountains, he more sedately trotted down the other side. That would not be as glorious an image. Neither would it have been so impressive if he had crossed the Alps on some other beast—say, a kangaroo.
Near the end of the 18th century, Gilbert C. Stuart started painting The Athenaeum. It was planned to show George Washington standing in a place of books, maps and other objects associated with learning. Stuart never completed the original work. Instead, he painted copies of it in complete and abbreviated versions. He sold his knockoffs for the then great sum of $100 each. You may have a less expensive copy in your pocket. Stuart’s Washington was reproduced for the one dollar bill.
When Howard Dean left the governorship of Vermont, he had dreams of running for president. To show himself to be an ordinary, outdoorsy guy, the governor raised on Park Avenue chose to have his official portrait depict him sitting on rocks by a lake in jeans, a flannel shirt, and hiking boots. He’s holding a canoe paddle. The result, painted by August Burns, was unlike any of the other governor paintings in the Vermont Capitol Building and was immediately dubbed the Portrait of L. L. Dean after similar images in the L. L. Bean sportswear catalog. Dean never became president and it is unlikely that any canoe-paddle-holding presidential image will ever appear on American currency.
The National Portrait Gallery houses portraits of Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon that are a surprising contrast. One might expect a sunny one for the ever-grinning Carter and a somber one for Nixon but the portrait of Carter is wooden. It might be the image of an under-selling widget salesman or a small town minister who gives sermons that are too long. The only thing notable about it is that behind him there is a sofa sporting terrible, disco era, yellow, blue, brown and beige stripes. The portrait of Nixon, done by Norman Rockwell, depicts him leaning on a comfy chair and holding his chin. He looks as sincerely content as a man watching kittens play.
The portrait of President Bill Clinton by Nelson Shanks for the National Portrait Gallery held a bit of a surprise for its subject. Shanks painted Clinton standing by a fireplace with a hand on his hip and a side show barker’s cynical look on his face. His hand bears no wedding ring and a shadow near Clinton was described, years later, by the artist to represent the shadow of Monica Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress. While the gallery denies they were influenced by the Clintons, the painting was put in a storage in 2009 and hasn’t been displayed since.
Neither of the Obama portraits are as contrived as Dean’s paddle pic nor as loaded with hidden meaning like Clinton’s but, while they are good likenesses, they both lack the dignity of Stuart’s Washington or the affable warmth of Rockwell’s Nixon.
Michelle’s portrait, by Amy Sherald, shows her sitting upon what appears to be a deflated hot air balloon bearing a pattern, according to the artist, reminiscent of Mondrian and black quilt makers. Her dress reveals her often-admired, well-toned arms. Back in 2009, when meeting Queen Elizabeth, Mrs. Obama responded to a warm half-hug from the royal with an equally warm but protocol-breaking embrace. The painting shows that Michelle, if she’d wanted to, could have snapped the elderly royal like a breadstick. Michelle’s face in the painting has a blank look with traces of judgmental displeasure. Her husband admired the work and praised how it captured the “hotness” of his wife. Does judgmental displeasure mean that to him?
Sherald, a black artist, enjoys much admiration for her paintings of black subjects whose skin she uses shades of grey to color. It is meant to put the person at the center of the image. How this is so is rather complex to explain. Like much art talk, it is done with a lot of intellectualizing and emotion with it all elevating the artist above the peasants who might wonder about the artist’s choices. An article by Antwaun Sargent in W magazine about the portrait entitled “Inside the Obama Portraits Unveiling: Witnessing Visions of Black Power Shake Up a Gallery of White History” contains an interesting typo. Instead of “sobbing,” the text reads: “Sherald, snobbing (sic) on the stage as she spoke about her work, paid long overdue reverence to the art of quiltmaking by generations of black women.” I admire a good quilt as much as the next guy but paying reverence is a bit much and a good example of arty “snobbing.”
Barack Obama’s portrait was painted by Kehinde Wiley. He is also a black artist. He reinterprets classical works using black figures. Wiley’s “cultural appropriation” is usually banal, but some, like his Judith, are unsettling. It shows a black woman holding up the severed head of a white woman. It was inspired by Biblical story of a Hebrew woman seducing then beheading a drunken Assyrian commander to save her people from his army. Several classical artists have painted interpretations of the incident meant to recall Judith’s heroism. It’s hard to interpret Wiley’s Judith as anything other than an image of racial animosity. The degree of his animosity is revealed by his having painting not one but two versions of the beheading.
Wiley paints Obama surrounded by a wall of foliage. The vegetation creeps around his chair and his legs and he looks like he’s being encroached upon by ivy. Casually dressed in a suit but no tie, his face bears an expression that, like his wife’s, is also displeased, as if those gazing upon his image aren’t up to his standards. Obama has lots of self-regard. Any drinking game based on a shot for every time he says “I,” “me,” or “my” in any speech he’s given, be it a State of the Union address or a eulogy, would turn the mightiest of livers into burnt gauze. But, despite his profound preference for the personal pronoun, he didn’t accomplish much with which a more self-aware man would want to be associated.
Obama attempted a lobotomy on America’s healthcare system by jamming his executive pen in one of its ears and twiddling it. He bugged out of Iraq, leaving it to the ISIS “JV team” that plunged it into a seventh century religious nightmare and that revelled in sex slavery, ethnic murder, and novel forms of execution, including explosive necklaces and caged immolation, all proudly displayed on the Internet. Obama kicked over another fire ant hill in Libya, deposing a dictator without doing anything to replace him with something better. He took upon himself what he admitted were unconstitutional powers and regally blessed the “Dreamers” with protected status. He used the IRS to torment ordinary Americans who happened to oppose his policies. His FBI let Hillary Clinton off the hook while spying on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in an attempt to smear him out of office. Every day we learn more about his misuse of his office.
If only Wiley’s ivy would enshroud Obama’s presidency like the plant life that overwhelmed Mayan pyramids. Then, in some future age, archaeologists could gain tenure by uncovering him and the world could gaze with fresh eyes at the being that once ruled America. “Who was this mysterious figure?” they will ask and “What reason did he have to look so pompous?”