Michelle Obama’s painting does not look like her. Here’s why
Michelle Obama’s portrait is fantastic. The criticism is that it does not look like her. No one familiar with Amy Sherald’s work would be surprised by this. This painting is much greater than a portrait of one woman. It is a portrait of first ladies. It is a portrait of all women. It looks like us. If you are a black woman, it looks like you. It holds multitudes.
This is Sherald’s signature style. Her paintings of African Americans are anonymous. They resemble their subjects, but at the same time, they do not. This is the first step into the rich dialogue of duality Sherald can embody in her portraits. This dual representative style is a purposeful tool, used to evoke complexities of race and gender. It is one that is inclusive of the other, even the viewer, in the identity of the subject.
Michelle is painted as if in a black and white photo. Sherald has said than she does this to remove color as race. Historically, black people have not had paintings to represent them. Only photos exist. Photos are accurate representations; thus the artist chooses to change the narrative of what this means and flips the concept to define the more honest, photographic representation as being the more valuable representation; coming from a place of strength and not oppression.
Famously (due in part to a large exhibition of photographs last year), Frederick Douglass was one of the most photographed people of the 19th century. He did this, in order to have representations of black people that were realistic and humanistic, ones that not been caricatured by whites. Sherald, directly references this lineage by portraying her subject like photos, an important history that carries through to Michelle Obama’s selection of her portraitist, and of her personal history of being a much photographed black woman. This is a narrative difference of the less-studied history of exploited and oppressed experiences and its echoes to the present that result in portraiture like Sherald’s. Without knowing art history or black history, it is harder to comprehend that a portrait would be painted to NOT look like its subject- on purpose.
Michelle sits like a queen, her dress is usurped from its decorative function to create a throne. There is irony in this composition; what first ladies wear is a popular discussion topic, but has been criticized for devaluing their contributions and roles. She’s a mountain of strength because of this dress, but the dress also traps her, a symbol of problems with the figure of the First Lady, and of power vs. powerlessness. This complex struggle of secondary roles that dehumanize, while at the same time give women opportunities for action and empowerment, is of course, relatable to all women.
Full of contradictions, the dress was designed to reference the quilts of Gee’s Bend, but due to the painted folds, it also references modernized African textiles, and the American flag. These components are stripped of the fullness of their symbols and symbolism, but contain within them the richness of creativity of African Americans, especially women. The patterns also reference modern painting: the color layout is reminiscent of Piet Mondrian, while the shapes refer more to Anni Albers. There are many kinds of references at play here: female work, African American contributions, recognized labor, and work that inspires others and is often not recognized.
Mondrian was deeply moved by Jazz when he arrived in America, and wanted to capture the syncopated beats which changed his style and became a conduit for the spirit of modern times, evoked both in his work and in the work of artists that he inspired. While Anni Albers, as a woman, was not recognized as an artist in her own right and had to channel her work through her fabric design. All these references reinforce that the subject cannot be considered under isolation; but is a composite of many intertwined, complicated histories. There is much work to be done in recognizing the historical contributions of African Americans and women that make up our current economic and cultural fabrics.
The blue background is a sky that transforms her already regal, queen-like position to that of a more heavenly sculpture. It focuses attention to the sitter, so it is easy to miss that pastel blue is a feminized version of the Democrat’s royal blue. It is not portrayed as weaker than a primary color or more dull. It glows in its own strength and takes up space. Still, Sherald does not avoid the fact that a pastel blue is not the bright blue we associate with political influence. A bright blue would have been easily recognized by the viewer as a reference to the Democratic party, whereas a pastel blue is not. Like Michelle, the color can rise above appearances, and have its own beauty and power, while reflecting the problems inherent in a society that has not elected a woman president.
Amy Sherald is a master. It is amazing how she painted these criticisms of political structure and patriarchy while still maintaining respect and dignifying the sitter. The same dresses that symbolize social behaviors that obscure Michelle’s political power, are still the ones that give her the structure and the position to have a louder voice. Michelle is stronger in this truth, not diminished by it.
The Obamas in the White House were very aware of what they represented to black Americans and the relationship between their accomplishments and historical precedents. President Obama’s painting, like his contributions to the political history of the United States, is destined to be on view, studied, and valued in the future. As for Michelle Obama’s portrait, there has not yet been a gallery in the Smithsonian that is devoted to showing the portraits of first ladies. After a temporary installation, Michelle’s portrait will most likely end up in storage. In this case, art follows life.
What can we do? The answer to the exclusion of women from positions of power is in this painting. Although it is minimal, it holds within it, the breadth of the dual worlds women have had to inhabit. In this duality of power and powerlessness, there is a possibility: that we can rise to share and shape this world equally, not despite our history, but because of it.