The Obamas’ just-unveiled presidential portraits are unlike any before them

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Let’s get the big question out of the way —

The portrait of Michelle Obama by the Baltimore artist Amy Sherald that was unveiled today in Washington’s National Portrait Gallery has gray skin.

Specifically, the former first lady is rendered in Sherald’s trademark “grayscale” — a charcoal color with taupe undertones — that doesn’t so much erase her subject’s race as declare its irrelevance.

Obama is depicted seated, her hair loose around her shoulders, in a floor-length dress reminiscent of the paintings by Piet Mondrian — and the quilts made by a black community in Alabama, according to Sherald.

“I paint American people, and I tell American stories through the paintings I create,” Sherald said at the unveiling ceremony. “Once my paintings are complete, the model no longer lives in the painting as themselves. I see something bigger, more symbolic, an archetype.”

Sherald’s painting, along with a portrait of former president Barack Obama created by the New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley, were revealed Monday. The presentation was attended by both artists, the Obamas, National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet and David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, along with celebrity guests including Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson.

Normally, the presentation of presidential portraits don’t generate much buzz. But, when it was announced last fall that the two fortysomething artists had been selected to commemorate the Obamas, the news was covered nationwide.

Partly, that’s because it seemed fitting that African-American artists would depict the nation’s first African-American president and first lady. Wiley, 40, and Sherald, 44, aren’t the first black artists commissioned to create an official presidential portrait. That honor goes to Simmie Knox, who created the White House paintings of Bill and Hillary Clinton. But they are the first black artists to create official presidential portraits specifically for the National Portrait Gallery.

What’s more, critics have described the Obamas’ choice as artistically bold. Sherald and Wiley are contemporary artists with distinct and surprisingly complementary styles.

Sherald has described her work as an homage to photographs of African-Americans taken in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the portrait, Michelle Obama looks directly at the viewer. Her gaze is level, her expression deadpan, her mouth relaxed but unsmiling. The portrait is titled “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama” — not one of Sherald’s usual evocative names.

“Mrs. Obama, you are omnipresent. You exist in our minds and hearts because we can see ourselves in you,” Sherald said at the ceremony.

Obama said she was overwhelmed and humbled by the portrait, which made her think of those who laid the foundation for her achievements.

“I’m also thinking of girls of color who in the years ahead will come to this place and who will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution,” she said. “I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls.”

The former president thanked Sherald for capturing the essence of his wife.

“Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace, beauty, intelligence, charm and hotness of the woman I love,” he said.

Barack Obama’s portrait departs in some ways from Wiley’s other work. Wiley is known for portraying African-Amerian men wearing street clothes. His subjects assume the heroic stance of the generals and kings memorialized in Old Masters paintings.

But the president is not surrounded with the trappings of royalty or military leadership. And, in this portrait, the background stays mostly where it belongs and doesn’t intrude onto the seated figure.

The former president depicted is sitting in chair surrounded by green floral wallpaper. When he and Wiley unveiled the painting, the audience gasped.

Obama joked that Wiley’s artistic integrity wouldn’t allow him to accede to the presidents request to make his ears smaller or his hair less gray.

“Maybe the one area where there were some concessions is that Kehinde always elevates his subjects. But he didn’t put me in this situation with partridges and scepters and thrones, or mount me on a horse,” he said. “I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without him making me look like Napoleon. I said, ‘bring it down just a touch.’ And that’s just what he did.”

Though these new portraits represent a departure of sorts for the collection, past presidential portraits have not been entirely immune to the trends sweeping the art world. For instance, in Elaine de Kooning’s 1963 portrait of John F. Kennedy, the youthful president emerges from an abstract background of energetic green and yellow slashes. And Chuck Close’s 2006 portrait of Bill Clinton breaks the face of the enigmatic president into a grid that becomes blurrier the closer that viewers come to the painting.

But, experimental artworks in the presidential collection remain the exception.

Sherald in particular, had operated outside the radar of the New York-centric art world. Wiley first gained national recognition in his twenties, and in 2015, a mid-career retrospective traveled to six cities nationwide. His selection wasn’t exactly a shock; the choice of Sherald, in contrast, took insiders by surprise. Since the news broke, she has been described variously as “relatively unknown” and “a rising star” who, with one painting, would enter the pantheon occupied by such artists as Gilbert Stuart, Rembrandt Peale and Norman Rockwell.

A native of Georgia, Sherald graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004. Twice, her career came perilously close to being derailed. Shortly after receiving her master’s degree in painting, she put down her paint brushes for three years while helping care for ill family members. Then, in 2012, she collapsed on a pharmacy floor and subsequently had a heart transplant. It took her about a year to build up her strength enough to allow her to resume painting.

The former first lady commended Sherald’s “extraordinary character and strength” in the face of those challenges.

In the fall of 2016, Sherald beat out 2,500 other entries to win the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Her work is included in several museum collections (including a forthcoming commission for the Baltimore Museum of Art) and she’ll have a solo show at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis this spring.

But Monday’s unveiling represents both Sherald’s introduction to a nationwide audience of ordinary art lovers and her first big public test. Major critics will scrutinize what she has created and express their opinions. An initial spate of Twitter commentary criticized the portrait for not resembling the former first lady.

Sherald knows not everyone will like her work, but she said she does think her portrait looks like Michelle Obama.

When she photographed the former first lady, Sherald was struck by how much the images resembled Malia Obama.

“She had a very youthful look in the photographs,” she said. “I tried to create an ideal her.”

Regardless of what the pundits think, Sherald already has one influential fan.

Michelle Obama said that when she and her husband interviewed Amy Sherald in the Oval Office, she felt an instant “sista-girl” connection.

“I was intrigued before she walked into the room,” Obama said. “I had seen the work and was blown away by the boldness of her colors and the uniqueness of her subject matter. And then she walked in, and she was fly and poised. She had this lightness and freshness of personality.

“Amy is well on her way to distinguishing herself as one of the great artists of her generation,” she said.

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