What to you think of Barack & Michelle Obama’s official portraits?

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I kind of wish that presidents and former presidents could have their choice in what kind of portraiture medium they wanted for their formal portraits. Like, how many of them would choose to just sit for an esteemed photographer, as opposed to sitting for a painted portrait? But for some reason, we cling to painted portraits for presidents. Which is where we are now. Michelle and Barack Obama unveiled their official portraits yesterday and a lot of people have a lot of thoughts. Let’s start with former President Obama’s portrait, painted by African-American art superstar Kehinde Wiley:

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How are we judging this? I give it bonus points because you can tell it’s Obama. Wiley captured him perfectly. I personally don’t like the whole “Obama seated in a chair, leaning forward.” That’s strange body language for the former POTUS. As for the “Wall of Leaves” behind, surrounding and almost overtaking Obama… I kind of enjoy how trippy it is. It feels like it was painted by a very talented marijuana enthusiast.

Michelle’s portrait was painted by African-American art-world rising star Amy Sherald. Here is is:

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This one has the kind of elegance I need for a FLOTUS portrait. She’s wearing a gorgeous ballgown, she looks regal, and it’s a striking and modern image. My problem with this is that Sherald didn’t really get Michelle’s face right. Is this Michelle Obama or Kerry Washington? It’s fine though, I guess. Mostly it’s just nice to see the Obamas and have a few moments where we aren’t terrified about and angry at Donald Trump.

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129 Responses to “What to you think of Barack & Michelle Obama’s official portraits?”

  1. Hh says:

    I’m sure it’s to Michelle’s liking since she picked the artist, however, dislike it… A LOT. Michelle is such a vibrant woman, full of life, and I wanted something to reflect that. Not only that, but the photo doesn’t look like her. Moreso like someone who could possibly be related to her.

    I liked Barack’s portrait. And overall, I’m glad they chose to spotlight two black artists.

  2. Loopy says:

    Michelle’s painting is an absolute joke…looks nothing like her! Omg how did this artist get commissioned for this and I am guessing they only saw them at the reveal,very poor job. Artist should be ashamed.

  3. RBC says:

    I would never have thought that was Michelle Obama.

  4. Patricia says:

    Obama is a lot more handsome than that portrait. The way that artist rendered the nose and the brow, especially between the eyebrows, makes him look kind of ugly. The man is not ugly! Also the balance is quite strange, with the top half of the portrait feeling too heavy. All that foliage seems to be crushing him into a tired, forward seated position.

    Michelle’s is ok… I love that her arms are on display there. But I agree the face doesn’t capture her either.

  5. wood dragon says:

    Barack Obama’s portrait works although there’s something harsh about his face.
    Not crazy about Michelle’s though. It’s so monochromatic that it looks bland and unfinished by comparison with her husband’s.

  6. Mabs A'Mabbin says:

    I’m trying to like them.

  7. STRIPE says:

    I love the idea of paintings because they allow for so much artistic freedom. Not that photography in the age of photoshop doesn’t, I guess, but idk. I would just die to be painted by someone like that!

    I love Obama’s and I love Wiley’s point of view in general (check out his Insta, his talent is extraordinary). Michelle’s…I appreciate what’s being called the “flat modernism” and the greyscale, but man it just doesn’t look like her. Such a bummer.

  8. tracking says:

    I love Michelle’s. The patterning on her skirt suggests the tradition of quilt making. It’s a very glamorous art-deco style rendition that denotes her elegance and force of personality, though I do wish the facial features were closer to life. Overall I like it, and the fact that it’s much more modern. I’m not sure how I feel about the way the foliage is putting so much pressure on Barack’s figure. Sort of like a casual Lincoln Memorial-style representation stuck in flowering shrubbery? I’m sure it’s symbolic, but I’m not quite getting it. I do think it’s interesting that masculinity is presented in a very different way here.

  9. Lucy2 says:

    I like both, but his more than hers. I wish hers had more vibrant colors rather than the grayscale, but she chose this artist and I’m sure is very pleased with it. Both portraits are very unique and interesting, and both artists are very talented.

  10. queenE says:

    Michelle’s portrait looks like an elementary school project winner

  11. QueenB says:

    Baracks looks great, Michellles painting is terrible imho.

  12. Jker says:

    It’s not photography, it’s art. So while I agree that Sherald’s portrait didn’t capture Michelle’s face, i think it did illustrate how regal, beautiful and commanding she is. Do I wish it looked more like Michelle’s face? Of course. But it’s still a wonderful and well done portrait of the first lady.

    I love Barak’s, no qualifiers necessary.

    And maybe I’m just salty bc seeing their faces is like salvation. I need to see their faces as often as possible – everywhere – as I repeat the mantra ‘just a bad president, not a bad country’. Bc every day Canada looks better and better.

    I also think it can’t be said enough how the Obamas quietly lift others up with them. First black artists to ever do a Presidents portrait – they were worried about way more than faces.

    • Esmom says:

      Yes to everything you said especially your last paragraph.

      I was thinking yesterday, who the eff would be willing to paint the Trumps? I shudder to even imagine their likenesses alongside the Obamas in the gallery.

      • Jker says:

        Esmom: lol, right?!? Maybe an animator, like someone who draws the boards for the Simpson’s or Family Guy.

        I can’t think of another type of artist as qualified to capture the farcical, cartoon qualities of the Drumphs. Although a cartoon would somewhat diminish the gravity of the grave damage these orange characters are commiting daily.

      • Kelly says:

        Esmom, I have feeling that some artists will pass on that particular commission. Both of the Trumps seem like impossible clients to satisfy with their considerable egos.

        Of both living and deceased artists, I have Lucian Freud paint 45 in the nude sitting on his favorite toilet tweeting. Freud wasn’t known for flattering his subjects’ vanity and he was also the grandson of Sigmund Freud. For Melania, it’s a tough choice. There’s so many 20th century artists known for taking a dim view of female vanity. Someone like Otto Dix who managed to make even attractive women look like caricatures of themselves in his paintings would be great. She’d also likely be offended by Grant Wood, who’d make her as plain as possible.

      • Kumquat says:

        Esmom, whatever the portrait of Trump looks like, you just KNOW it will have a huge, opulent gold frame and be “the greatest most handsome portrait ever painted in all of both recorded history and pre-history!!! (Heavy sarcasm used)

  13. lower-case deb says:

    i’m not even mad that the artist goes minimalism on Michelle. i’m not even mad that the picture Michelle doesn’t really look like the real one. she can even look like a Picasso or a Dali portrait for all i care…

    but i just wish that her personality shines through the canvas which it didn’t. no vibrancy no zeal no oomph no joie de vivre.

    i feel the artist is afraid to fail because she respects Michelle a lot that she became too cautious… at least that’s what i get from it. too restrained.

  14. Aiobhan Targaryen says:

    I love both of the portraits.

    I also love the top photo of them together. They actually look like they enjoy being around each other.

  15. Beth says:

    These aren’t that good. Baracks isn’t horrible, at least he’s recognizable, but I’d never guess that was a painting of Michelle.

  16. LooseSeal says:

    Do you know what? These portraits are important because they’re amazing black artists given access to a place in history they don’t typically have access to in the past. God I love the Obamas. And I love their portraits. All the ways they choose to celebrate the fact that they’re the first African American family to have been in the White House make me stand and cheer.

    • Mabs A'Mabbin says:

      This. Which is why I’m trying to like them lol. I love art and artistic endeavors. I think if I had my portrait done I’d find an impressionist lmao, or better still… post-impressionism, or better even still… fauvism so I could look all colorful and wonky. So long as it doesn’t look like I’m looking in a mirror ;p.

    • Nan says:

      I agree. I realized today that I already love these portraits with all my heart, they’re memorable, bright, strong, stylish, fresh, bold and modern and so are the Obamas. I love that they each picked an African-American artist and that Michelle picked a woman artist for herself. This is the most exciting turn the art world has seen in ages – painting isn’t dead yet!

  17. Stacy Dresden says:

    I love them. Modern and beautiful.

  18. Escaped Convent says:

    Well, I’m not trying to like it. Unless the canvasses got mixed up and that is Kerry Washington, this is ridiculous and embarrassing.

    Shouldn’t we be able to tell that that’s Michelle Obama?

    And President Obama in the leaves…..I have no idea.

  19. Jayna says:

    There is no likeness to Michelle in that painting. I would never ever know it was Michelle Obama if I wasn’t told, so it is a fail in that regard. I loved the overall style of the painting of Michelle, capturing her essence, a vibe of effortlessly cool with class, if only the face had even remotely resembled her.

  20. Sojaschnitzel says:

    I hate both paintings as much as I like the Obamas (read: a lot). They are vey bad art and I do not share the opinion that Barack’s is well done. His face is too long on the painting. The ratios of his face are not okay. As for hers: that just gets one big laugh from me. I daresay that I could have easily done that better and I dont consider myself a painter.

    • Audi says:

      Couldn’t agree more. I’m amazed at the comments here praising both or one of the portraits. I can’t paint worth a damn but I can appreciate excellent work vs. ridiculous, almost childlike paintings. They are both beyond awful. Regardless of the background/meaning of either, to simply look at them at face-value they’re just embarrassing. And these portraits are going represent these two amazing USA leaders in the Smithsonian? Damn. Huge fail.

  21. Liberty says:

    There’s a good article on Slate that explains the artists, and the nature of the portraits and their meaning. It’s a short Q&A with an art scholar, a Professor Richard J. Powell.

  22. ThenThereIsThat says:

    When I first saw that portrait I was thinking it was Kerry Washington! It looks nothing like Michelle. In fact, that artist made her look like she has more Caucasian features. Michelle is a very expressive, dynamic woman who deserves a better portrait.

    I am sure if that painting would have been done by an equally-talented white artist all hell would have broken lose.

    And Barracks portrait is fine. I am sure Beyoncé is running to have a similar one done of herself as we speak.

  23. adastraperaspera says:

    I don’t love either portrait, but am so happy that they chose African-American artists they liked and gave us the gift of two lovely additions to the gallery. This is our national heritage. These paintings will show future generations a dynamic, modern, dignified couple who made our country better. Also wonderful to see Barack and Michelle! It’s such a difficult time, but we are all still here! Seeing them gives me confidence that we will root out corruption and evil.

  24. Snowflake says:

    So, there’s an article on how the woman artist has done paintings of an African American woman holding the head of a Caucasian woman. I guess after cutting it off. So ridiculous to do an article about that. Just trying to say the artist is racist, Imo. Stupid people. It was on the Daily Mail. I don’t get how people say the Obamas are racist either.

  25. Pansy says:

    I’m a huge Wiley fan and follow his work, and that background is very typical for him. It has meaning specific to Obama, as well as keeping in line with his philosophy of giving African Americans their time in portraiture with rich backgrounds, fabrics, etc, something they (people of color) missed out on, i.e. the Baroque, the NeoClassical period. I teach art history, so love this man!

    • magnoliarose says:

      I love Obama’s portrait.
      It reminds me distantly of Frida Kahlo and has ethnic energy behind it. It makes me look long and all over the canvas, so I know I am interested.
      I don’t like Michelle’s. I want to and appreciate it, but I don’t like her face.

  26. smee says:

    Kehinde Wiley did Barack justice. I do agree that the posture is not presidential enough. I love how modern and different it looks.

    Unfortunately, Amy Sherald missed the mark. You’re right – it does look like Kerry Washington more than Michelle. I love the dress and the pose. But it somehow looks amateurish and very flat. But, once again, points for being modern and different.

    I hope Dump’s portrait is the one of him nude with the micro-peen.

  27. Harryg says:

    Sorry, I think they are terrible! He is sitting on a toilet, and she’s fading away. I hate these paintings.

  28. Starryfish says:

    I love them! They are interesting and engaging pieces of art independent of their subjects, which often times official portraits aren’t.

  29. Betsy says:

    I was only familiar with Sherald’s decapitation work previously, and those women were so much more vibrantly rendered. I see that grayscale African-Americans has been her style lately, so although it isn’t my thing, fine, but I wish it looked a *bit* more like Mrs. Obama. Maybe it does in person. The dress is fantastic. I love the pose, regal but ready to spill the tea with a friend.

    Mr. Obama’s portrait is just amazing.

  30. Alexandria says:

    My God non-painted Michelle looks very gorgeous here! Glowing! Well rested?

  31. noway says:

    I like both paintings and the style of both is modern and fresh. I agree Michelle’s picture doesn’t look like her that much, my only complaint. Still I saw the two of them and the whole event, and it brought a smile to my face. I really miss many things about the Obamas, but especially No Drama Obama. Trump is so many things, but exhausting comes to mind first.

  32. Save Mueller says:

    I love both of them. I think Michelle’s portrait looks off as it is photographed on the stage here; it looks bolder in other representations where the lighting was better.
    Read about the artists and look at their other works if you have a negative opinion on these portraits, I think a little context might change your mind!

  33. JA says:

    His actually looks like him but hers is a bit off. Still good paintings but prefer his despite all those damn flowers.

  34. Mo says:

    Barack’s portrait looks like him and its contemporary. I like it a lot but it feels…like something in an urban outfitters display. That’s just my opinion. But Michelle’s face is all wrong and looks very amateur. I have not doubt Mobama was like dafuq when they saw it but Michelle is gracious AF and doesn’t let it show.

    That being said, is it really true that the two artists who painted the official portraits are the first African-American artists to have that honor? Props to Mobama for making that happen but it disgusts me that it took a black president to commission a non-white artist. I will have to look more into this but I am really disappointed by the ubiquitous racism that creeps into every aspect of life here in the US. Ughh.

  35. dumbledork says:

    I thought Barack was sitting in front of the ivy at Wrigley Field.

  36. Regina Falangie says:

    Love them dearly and I love the paintings. They are beautiful and special, just like them!!

  37. Sherry says:

    At first I did not care for either portrait, but the former President’s portrait has grown on me and I like it now, though I wish as someone said above that the chair were grounded with the floral background. He almost looks like he’s floating on a chair in the greenery.

    I cannot stand the First Lady’s portrait. Truthfully, an 8th grade art student could have done a better job. I read somewhere that the portraits should show something depicting who they area and I’m just not seeing that with this portrait. It’s bland and looks nothing like her. Michelle is a vibrant, joyful woman and I’m not seeing that woman in this painting.

    I wish Wiley had been commissioned to do both portraits.

  38. Muprhy says:

    They’re not to my taste but I like the artists and the significance of each painting.

  39. Deeanna says:

    What difference does the race of the artist make when they have failed to produce a recognizable portrait of the subject?

    Barrack’s is just okay. The overabundence of greenery is distracting and detracts from the subject. Michelle’s totally fails to capture her – it not only does not look like her, it does not in any way capture her persona.

    Each of these artists could have painted a less stylized portrait while still maintaining their own artistic integrity.

    I suspect there were plenty of oh.my.god reactions when both the national gallery folks and the Obama’s first viewed these paintings. But by then, what to do other than to smile and be gracious.

    When the great masters screwed up they went back and repainted over top of their error. Michelle’s face should be redone because currently it is a disservice to her.

  40. Missy says:

    They added a lot of gravitas to B. Obama’s face in the portrait. Michelle’s face got beauty-fied in its proportions and apparently the beauty standard is set by Kerry Washington.

  41. Lorelai says:

    I dislike them both and am getting very resentful of being told I just don’t “get” them and need to read about the context, etc. I have read about the artists, and I still just hate these portraits and think they don’t do the Obamas justice.

    I do appreciate the fact that the painters were the first black artists to be featured in this gallery, and it was wonderful to see Barack and Michelle again.

  42. phaedra says:

    I am biased because I’m friends with the artist, but maybe I can add to the discussion. Last year, over dinner, Amy was telling the story of how she got the commission. Michelle connected with Amy and her work. Amy’s not a realist. Never has been. Her portraits are all symbol. Every visual element signifies something, usually several things. The ashy color, the flatness of the faces: that’s all her style. For me, and again I’m biased, it is a break from the complete snore-fest that is the National Portrait Gallery hall of presidents. There are a thousand painters who can caricature Michelle’s face, and several million literal photographs of Michelle that capture her face, but none of them say what Amy is saying. And that’s what Michelle chose.

  43. Jennifer says:

    I’m just here for the feels. I miss them both so very much. It still hurts.

  44. phaedra says:

    And those who are saying the portrait does not capture Michelle’s ‘persona’ are correct. A persona, especially in politics, is basically nothing but a ‘game face.’ Michelle has got a great one to be sure, but people’s characters go much deeper than that. Again, love it or hate it, but Michelle knew 100 percent what Amy wanted to say, and was an active partner. I was stunned, when I saw the painting, at how accurately Amy captures the woman she saw when she met Michelle: calm, strong, on board for serving her country but not really a fan of being in the public eye, etc.

    • Sandy Eggo says:

      Thanks for your insight and details, phaedra! I really love both portraits, but Michelle’s in particular. A painted portrait does not need to be (and often should not be) a photographicly realistic representation of the subject’s features. The flat shapes and composition of Michelle’s portrait are really striking and modern. Knowing that Michelle chose this artist and actively participated should tell us a lot–excellent point about her politics “game face.”

  45. Lilith says:

    My reaction, initially, was to love POTUS’s picture and be disappointed that Michelle’s did not seem to capture her true beauty and essence.

    But, after the honor of having this couple as POTUS and First Lady for eight years, I know that they are thoughtful and considerate in all that they do. They each obviously chose these artists for a reason.. reasons that go beyond most non-artists/art enthusiasts understanding.

    God I miss them… ❤️

  46. Lala says:

    Since both artist have distinctive styles…which had to be the reasons why they were picked…I know the Obamas’ knew what they would be getting…I LOVE POTUS’ picture…the vibrant color…just SENDS ME…and his face looks like…his face…only fuller…Michelle…well, at first I hated it on sight! That pale palette…IRKS MY VERY SOUL…however, the more I looked at it…the more I saw…”OH…MICHELLE ISN’T LOOKING LIKE KERRY WASHINGTON…THAT’S BABYGIRL’S SASHA’S FACE!!!” And Sasha takes after her Mama…and Malia takes after her Daddy…and yea, they ALL look like Kerry Washington could be a family member…and I’m getting used to the pale palette…though again…MY SOUL CRIES OUT LOOKING AT IT!!! But both portraits….are GROUNDBREAKINGLY DIFFERENT…and so are they…

  47. Elle says:

    Nobody sees Olivia Pope in Michelle’s portrait?

  48. april says:

    I like everything about Michelle’s portrait except for the FACE. It doesn’t even look like her.

  49. Hehe says:

    President Obama’s is wonderful, The First Ladies does not even look like her. I love the gown in the pic

  50. dawnchild says:

    I love the Obamas so I’ll take any picture of them. HOWEVER, I was wondering what if the artists had been reversed…Wiley doing Michelle’s portrait and Sherald interpreting Barack? Their styles may have been suited to the other painters better. Michelle glowing in technicolor, while Obama is more introspective and muted.
    Also it would have broken another boundary…why match up genders with the artists and the sitters? Although if Michelle had personally chosen Sherald to paint her, then that answers the question of course.

  51. misspiggy says:

    that’s Kerry Washington not Michelle Obama? And i’m fans of both…

  52. Em says:

    Barack’s portrait looks like a children’s book illustration and Michelle’s portrait , more like Kerry Washington than the past FLOTUS (as many have noticed).

  53. Eveil says:

    I love the two official portraits and the fact that they were created by black artists to represent our first black POTUS and FLOTUS just makes me want to bawl like a baby.

  54. Layla Love says:

    Barrack looks great , as always . The Michele Obama portrait looks NOTHING like her face. It’s a complete embarrassment! How could the artist not even come close to getting her face and neck right? It looks like a fake head pasted on a cut out doll body !

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