Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s goal has always been to “tell the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development and culture.” This mission makes the tradition of adding the portraits of the President and the first lady a highly anticipated event. Barack and Michelle Obama faced controversy when they chose the artists to do their portraits, so it is no surprise that on Feb. 12, when the portraits of the Obamas were revealed, more controversy followed.
Commissioned for Barack Obama’s portrait, Kehinde Wiley is known for a highly naturalistic style of painting that showcases African-American people. The Columbus Museum of Art says that he “gained recent acclaim for his heroic portraits which address the image and status of young African-American men in contemporary culture” and that Wiley “creates a fusion of period styles, ranging from French rococo, Islamic architecture and West African textile design to urban hip–hop and the “Sea Foam Green” of a Martha Stewart Interiors color swatch.”
Amy Sherald is known for using a grayscale style to paint skin tones as a way to address and challenge the concept of skin, race and social identity. The National Museum of Women of the Arts describes Sherald as an artist that “explores the ways people construct and perform their identities in response to political, social, and cultural expectations.”
Both artists will be the first ever African-American artists featured among the Smithsonian’s gallery, but that is not what sparked conversation the night that they were revealed to the public. Many come to the internet to complain that these contemporary portraits were ugly and did not do the Obamas justice.
Although bost portraits showcased the artists’ signature styles, many viewers were confused about the portraits. They found the hedge background to be to gaudy, the grayscale too simple, or just too abstract for a portrait that would be entering the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The public belief is that anyone who can look at these paintings should be able to immediately understand the painting’s deeper meanings without too much thinking.
However, the classic style of portraits and the contemporary style that the two artist have do not allow for that simple head on approach to the paintings. Contemporary style are not always a realistic snapshot of a moment, but a dramatization and enhancement of certain aspects. This is most likely the reason why there is such a huge disconnect between the artists’ and the audience’s reception of the paintings. Most of them thought it would be in the classic portrait style–not the artist’s personal styles.