Obama Portraits Blend Paint and Politics, and Fact and Fiction

This Barack Obama Is No Mr. Nice Guy. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of the former president contradicts the impression he often made in office of being detached.

Comments: 197

  1. Reminds me how much I miss having both of them as our President and First Lady: class, intelligence, and genuine compassion for others.

  2. I love both of these portraits! They are refreshingly different; just like the subjects. I especially like Mrs. Obama's - the grey tones say so much to me on so many different levels. As an African American woman, I relate fully to the color (& it would take many more characters than available to explain why). One point - grey unifies the labels of black & white (though none of us are really either). The African shapes call more recently the art of the Ladies of Gee's Bend. The power & beauty there is unerringly redolent of who Mrs. Obama is.

  3. I am not happy with Trump but I am well and truly glad that the Obamas have Moved On.

  4. They won't be missed I can assure you.

  5. Yes. By all means, yes. The subjects posture and composure are dignified - even to a degree haunting. The compositions unequivocally American. The portraits are lovely.

  6. We beg to differ.

  7. The Obama's were a cut above the other presidents, in class, intelligence, character, and leadership. These portraits reflect those traits, which so many of us miss today.

  8. No, simply not true

  9. The Obamas' portraits are not only a real pleasure to look at, but they represent all that is good and strong and beautiful about America.

    It breaks my heart to think about how far we've fallen as a nation.

  10. Fallen, yes, but the direct result of the Clintons and Obamas, and all the people who pretend that isn't so.

  11. I appreciate what they did, or tried, but her portrait doesn't even look like her and his is just weird. Like in one more month you won't even be able to see him, he'll be overgrown.

    Flowers? After the eight years he endured?

  12. He deserves a bouquet—a couple hundred bouquets

  13. I see the flowers not as what he endured but as what made him and what he gave us, what he gave the world.

  14. Her dress fits nicely, not too tight. Give credit where it is due. Kudos to the artist!

  15. I would love to see these portraits. American Greatness.

  16. I love there portraits!! And yes, i so miss them leading our country.

  17. President and First Lady Obama taught us what a socially and economically just society looks like. They reminded us that OUR lives and environment can be sustainable. They reminded us - in new ways - that listening to others, diplomacy and human hearts are the lifeblood of civilization.

    The contrast between President Obama's administration and The Con Don's cesspool of corrupt, lying people is simply staggering.

    The vast majority of Americans - and average people around the world - want President Obama's vision - not The Con Don and his International Mafia Robber Baron Cabal's destruction.

    WE THE PEOPLE can and will stop the Robber Barons Right Now.

  18. Your explanation of their time in the White House shows that you, like all liberals/progressives/democrats/whatever, believe liberals have the right to defy the Constitution and make American citizens slaves to the government to implement a Marxist agenda. Maybe the Obamas should be in charge of a charity, they ABSOLUTELY should not be in charge of the government of a free society like the United States. Many Americans believe in freedom, not government control. Ironic that studies have shown that the people that want to steal from their fellow Americans and redistribute wealth are the ones that give the least to charity - they believe in stealing from others to "help" others, but are not willing to reach into their own pockets to help others. Sad that people like you are so willing to fight to make yourself and every other American a slave - to the government. Well, I guess that is the history of the Democrats - slavery, for which they never apologized to the country.

  19. Turn off fox so-called news, hate radio and hate social media, Dick W. It has polluted your "conservative" mind.

  20. "...studies have shown that the people that want to steal from their fellow Americans and redistribute wealth are the ones that give the least to charity - they believe in stealing from others to "help" others, but are not willing to reach into their own pockets to help others." And where did these figures come from again?

  21. Both very interesting and uniquely represented. There are so many facets to people's expressions and personality and I have always loved Barack Obama's twinkling eyes and smile but I get this look for everything he faced during his 8 years and what we are all facing now. Michelle Obama's portrait is not really her face at all I don't think. In fact if you look at it quickly it could be her daughter Malia's likeness. I don' know if it really captures her personality as well as I would have liked. But I think it is powerful for its uniqueness and abstractness.
    Both interesting and I wonder how many more centuries it will be before there is another portrait of a black or non white president. Can't happen soon enough!

  22. The Presidents portrait looks good. One thing though, the flowers representing his father should be sunflowers. Sunflowers are the official flower of the state of Kansas. Frank Marshall Davis was born in Kansas.

    Michelles portrait is a bit of a reach. Shame, I do find her attractive but not so much here.

  23. Really, Dave? Why is it necessary to be a hater? I suppose 45 is your idea of a human being.

  24. Stanley Armour Dunham and Hussein Onyango Obama were his grandfathers. Barack Hussein Obama Jr. was not raised by his father Barack Hussein Obama Sr. but the evidence suggests that in fact Obama did grow up with a father’s leadership, and that the father was none other than his communist mentor, Frank Marshall Davis. That is who the book Dreams of My Father is about.

  25. Wasn't Davis Obama's grandfather?

  26. Beautiful portraits; Beautiful Subjects and Artists.
    The unveiling ceremony today brought tears to my eyes.
    For 20 minutes we were taken back to a time when our President and First Lady were dignified, curious, and truly caring human beings.
    Now we fall back to reality.

  27. For 20 minutes we were taken back to Reagan's Presidency? Wish I was there for those 20 minutes. What is dignified in subverting the Constitution, constantly blatantly lying to America, being criminally corrupt (because everyone else in government is too corrupt and/or gutless to do anything about it) and destroying our country, internally and abroad - that is what Obama gave us. Anybody that claims differently is either completely clueless or lying to themselves and everyone else. P.S. - The Barak portrait is good, but sitting in a bush is a ridiculous concept - not dignified or Presidential at all. oes it represent all the weed he smoked in his life? The Michelle portrait? Well, it is a good effort - for a high school student - should be a lot better if it is an official portrait for The United States

  28. President Obama's portrait has its good points; the face and eyes, the commending presence, the pose on the chair. But the background makes me think of Zach Galifianakis.

    The FLOTUS portrait does nothing for me. It doesn't capture her spirit and looks too monochromatic. Where is Clementine Churchill when we need her?

  29. Both portraits have a richness of texture and light, but I think the portrait of Michelle does not do her beauty justice. The artist's interpretations will likely stir debate and admiration, which is expected. I believe Michelle Obama's beauty has been unnecessarily subdued.

  30. In art this is classified as Primitive. Perfect.

  31. President Obama's portrait shows his depth, intelligence and compassion. Michelle Obama's portrait, on the other hand, shows a bland face that does not capture her power, strength, wisdom and beauty. She was more than a fashion icon as FLOTUS, which appears to be the message of this artist by emphasizing a dress.

  32. I think Michelle Obama looks extremely forward thinking, modern and powerful in the portrait. How many official portraits feature someone in bare arms, hair flowing and wearing contemporary art print on their clothing? Even her skin color emphasize that she is black and not the lighter brown that is commonly accepted/depicted of African Americans. That's modernity, strength, wisdom and beauty right there.

    I found both portraits deeply moving.

  33. I could not agree more. I love the dress, but the beauty is not captured, not at all. I am disappointed.

  34. Maybe the artist can re-touch Michelle Obama's face to get more of a true likeness; sadly I don't recognize the vibrant First Lady in this portrait.

  35. Great portraits of two great people.

  36. Obama sitting in a garden of poison ivy. Appropriate.

  37. Shame that looks absolutely nothing like Michelle Obama...

  38. Please, lets get started on Trumps

  39. President Bush has been commissioned to portray Donald's likeness.

  40. I agree - Michelle Obama's face in her portrait is generic - except for that familar sneer on her lips. She never looked happy.

  41. You must be thinking of the current FLOTUS.

  42. You're definitely confusing her with Mrs Trump. I miss Michelle's exuberance and smile when engaging with the public.

  43. No -Mrs. Trump doesn't smile at all - except when she is interacting with children. Mrs. Obama always looked like she smelled something noxious when the cameras weren't directly on her. She also says she's a role model for women of color but doesn't explain why she feels compelled to straighten her own hair.

  44. Wow! How can the identity of the greens surrounding Obama in his protrait be ignored?! Is it not poison oak, with all its toxic symbolism?

  45. I think that Obama’s hands in the portrait is a sly comment on Trump’s tiny hands.

  46. You might want to view the larger version of the portrait; you'll see it lacks the telltale lobes of poison oak leaves.

  47. Again, how fascinating that everyone is ignoring the aggressive greenery...his feet are partially covered in it, and it's creeping over his chair...it's loaded with message!

  48. I can't help but wonder if Obama's hands being portrayed a little larger than normal are shot at Trump... hehe

  49. I like the Obamas, but these portraits are ridiculous. The second one doesn't even look like Michelle Obama. They look like they were painted by amateurs.

  50. She looks like her glorious,glamorous self.
    unfortunately, he looks like he got lost in
    the Minotaur's maze and thankfully found
    himself a chair.very disappointing.
    he should commission an artist who will
    present him in a more dignified setting,
    perhaps a library ,since he loves to read,
    or among schoolchildren, inspiring them
    as a role model.anything but what was
    rolled out this morning.

  51. I don't know. Maybe he wanted to enjoy the greenery before Pruitt finishes it off for us.

  52. Michele's portrait fails to capture her beauty and her captivating charisma.

  53. Charisma ? My dog Robert the Bruce has more charisma than M.Obama.

  54. I felt a renewed surge of pride and happiness looking at these intereesting, well wrought paintings. Really compelling likenesses of our esteemed and sorely missed President and First Lady.

  55. I've studied figure drawing for decades, and it's evident in the portrait of Mrs. Obama that her arms are too long and her head is too small.

  56. Thank you for putting to words why I feel like the portrait is just off.

  57. the portrait of Michelle is not a rendering.

  58. Obama's portrait is totally pitiful, with the legs wide apart and arms in a folded position. The expression is "pained." I would not recognize him without a caption. The flowers should be potted plants in a patio if they're so symbolic (good choice of species), but a president "floating" in greenery is overkill.

    As to Mrs Obama's portrait, I'm having a difficult time recalling how often she parted her hair in the middle. And why isn't she smiling?

    Sorry, this, to me, is a non-story that we'd prefer not to know.....

  59. Of African descent? We are all of African descent, although white supremacists refuse to agree. The phrase "recent African descent" could help counter white supremacist beliefs.

  60. You got that right Les! ANY discussion or argument of race MJST start with where we all started, anything less is a fools errand.

  61. Why would you want to enshrine that FLOTUS portrait? It diesn't look anything like her. The dress is great, but try again on the face. The POTUS portrait does a better job on likeness, but gives foreground prominence to the plants instead of the man. It ends up looking like wallpaper. Both portraits are really badly-designed.

  62. Michelle's portrait conveys her approach to life but the face is not really hers at all.

  63. I think trees behind President Obama would have been more masculine, but his face looks just like him. The First Lady's portrait strikes me as cold and cartoonish-not like her personality at all-where is the warmth? The colors are also very blah.
    Nevertheless, the portraits will stand out and be memorable, just like their subjects.

  64. Sorry, but I can’t say either portrait moves me.

  65. The Obama couple portraits are terrible. Obama wasn't about flowers and greenery. He was a leader who got important things done, (even if some were later undone). His portrait is a joke. Why did he approve it?

    Mrs. Obama's doesn't even look like her. Her face is small and hard to see. Her portrait is about the dress she's wearing. It's unflattering to her memory. Why did she approve it?

  66. I wish Kerry James Marshall of Chicago had been commissioned. He is arguably the greatest African American painter working today, and would have depicted our finest First Lady in her greatness.

  67. Nice article but - as per the last two paragraphs - I don't understand why it's a bad thing that the Presidents' portraits have a dedicated space within the National Portrait Gallery while those of their spouses do not. The President is the person serving in the role of President, not the spouse. Many people serving in more important roles within the White House and the government overall do not have dedicated showcase spaces. It's not like there's a gallery space for all of the President Pro Tempores of the Senate or the Secretaries of Defense.

  68. They are both beautiful portraits with their respective subjects thoughtfully rendered. Michelle’s has one drawback for me. The dress seems to be placed between the subject and the viewer, making the sitter too distant, almost unreachable, contrary to the impression FLOTUS used to give every time she appeared in public.

  69. I'm entranced by the painting of Mr. Obama. It's lush and gorgeous. And seems very fitting.

    But I have to ask, why only represent one side of Mr. Obama's heritage? The artists behaves as if Mr. Obama didn't have a mother. Surely even a small token in such an expansive piece could have been carved out to represent the side of Mr. Obama's family that ultimately raised and nurtured him.

    It doesn't feel so much racist to me as it does misogynistic. Like somehow women don't count in the life of a great man.

  70. The left prefers to think of Obama as "the first BLACK POTUS" and completely deny his white heritage, which is equal. (And he was raised by a white mother and two white grandparents! never knowing his black African father!)

    Obama is mixed race -- he has always said so directly -- it is the lefty media which wishes to portray him as purely black.

  71. The deadpan and stolid expression of the face of Obama is not a face I recognize of our former president. Which leads me to a conclusion Oscar Wilde came to when he wrote that “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.”

  72. I'm no art scholar but I like these paintings, especially his. Portraits are boring, but the Obama's are interesting.

  73. Barack's portrait looks like the result of someone's LSD trip, and Michelle's like a high school artist's rendering. I guess if they chose the artists, then they must have had an idea what the results would be. But in my humble opinion neither portrait conveys the importance of its subject to our country's history, and they certainly don't capture the Barack or Michelle we came to know in their eight years in the White House. Both portraits are disappointments. They should request a do-over.....by different artists.

  74. No do-over. We already paid for these horrors, and I for one do not want to pay for another one. I just want them to go away.

  75. Try looking at the recent book put out by their White House photographer. There are many beautiful photographs of the whole Obama family, including Bo and Sunny. I cherish this book and have already spent many hours with it. The price is very reasonable for such a wonderful book. You'll love it!

  76. Sorry, here to stay.

  77. Gorgeous paintings.

    At first I thought that the portrait of Michelle Obama doesn't look much like her. Then I realized I haven't met her and have seen only photographs of the public person. Her true likeness is seen by those who know her, and now perhaps we are seeing what she "really" looks like.

  78. i think they are portraits anyone would be proud of.

  79. I love these. They are a breath of much needed fresh air.

  80. His is a hit; hers to me is a miss. The dress dwarfs her spirit, which seems to be missing altogether. Glad for the bare arms, though : )

  81. I particularly like Barrack's portrait, but felt that there's much more depth to Michelle's persona than depicted. I suspect that Donald is lining up the incredible artist Karen Pence for his portrait.

  82. I can agree that First Lady portraits should have dedicated space. BUT , certainly not to offer a welcoming environment tp a future first female President.
    That person should, of course, have her portrait among the other Presidental peers, even if all preceding Presidents are men. Presidents are Presidents.

  83. These portraits are embarrassing and don't reflect the greatness of either person. I am stunned they were allowed to be presented to the public as likenesses of either one of them.

    Something is amiss here. Both former First Lady Michele Obama and former President Obama deserve portraits that reflect the grace and ferocity with which they protected our country and people.

    Why not produce portraits that are emblematic of their tenure as representatives of our country and proponents for a world in which we are all equal and accepted. Nothing less will do.

  84. They chose these great artists to represent them and I am thrilled. Try to look again. I think they are wonderful.

  85. I understand that art is subjective and I want to love these portraits, but I simply can not. Her portrait doesn't look anything like her and it appears she has a quilt for a dress. His portrait captures some of the elegance of the man, but neither portrait does them justice, in my opinion.

    I respect that you like them. I assume they'll now be part of our Americana.

  86. At first glance, I didn't like President Obama's stern expression. One of the things that I enjoyed about his presidency was his ability to laugh, to smile, to genuinely engage with the world and the people in it. But on closer inspection, it's starting to grow on me. It's as though the viewer is in the middle of a meaningful, intense discussion with him and he stopped for a second to let you snap a picture.

    I'm not as crazy about MIchelle Obama's portrait. It captures her eyes and cheekbones, but doesn't quite capture her essence. I know portraits don't need to stand in for photographs in being absolutely accurate images of their subjects, this portrait almost makes her look plain, and she is not.

  87. LOL!....You take yourselves very seriously. You all over emphasize your monolithic comments with adjectives like class, intelligence and dignity as if you don't really believe it deep down. They are politicians, nothing more......and you know the pictures are a fail. Social Justice Artists? .......... lol! BTY... NYT you are not being taken seriously anymore...good work.

  88. The flower that represents Hawai'i in the portrait is not jasmine, it's plumeria.

  89. Does ANYONE even care about this traitor ex-President anymore?? When his full crimes become public knowledge, his full deserved disgrace will be shown for all to see.

  90. President Obama seems to be posed against the ivy-covered outfield walls at Wrigley field in Chicago. Most excellent.

  91. Mrs. Obama's portrait is disappointing, to say the least. I hope the main criterion in choosing the portraitist wasn't that he or she be African-American, but the most talented artist.

  92. We'll have to have a national contest to select Trump's official portrait. Could any artist, other than perhaps Hieronymus Bosch, do him justice?

  93. Jeff Koons.
    Just sayin'.

  94. These portraits are, of course, wonderful and far superior to any that went before. How could any person not see that portraits done by Americans of African descent of the President and his wofe who see themselves mostly in terms of race, not be worthy of great praise.?

  95. Looking at these portraits is very difficult for me. My heart is aching and I have tears in my eyes: We've fallen so fast, so hard and so low as a nation that it astounds me that these two classy, intelligent, thoughtful human beings were leading us only a year or so ago..

  96. I love them, and how I miss them.

  97. Both of the paintings are beautiful, just like the Obamas.

    I didn't agree with their every policy stance, but, oh, how I miss a generally functional, small 'r' republic where my vote counted and my voice could be heard.

  98. Both portraits must be what the Obamas wanted as I'm fairly sure they sat for them and were consulted. I don't understand either one and have to conclude that their overall goal was not to look like any other portrait in our history - just to emphasize that they are 'different' and make a statement. Why isn't Obama's white Kansas (I think) mother represented? Is only his father's side worthy of remembering? As for First Ladies having gallery space. A firm no. They are not elected and when we have our first female President, her portrait should stand out.

  99. To reply to one question - Obama's mother is represented: she raised him in Hawaii, which seems to me an appropriate acknowledgement.

  100. Hawaii is represented. That's where he was born. Presumably his mother was present, unless Donald Trump has evidence otherwise.

    Reactions to art and to the Obamas are always revealing.

  101. Yes. Agreed. Hawaii for where Barak Obama was born. Africa for his father's birthplace and his mother's birthplace - not represented.

  102. We all agree that Obama is in the outfield at Wrigley Field, right?

  103. It appears that so many of the readers who commented upon the portraits did not read the entire article which explains in detail the meaning of the background of President Obama's portrait.

  104. It looks like he's in the ivy at Wrigley Field. But I thought he claimed he was a White Sox fan.

  105. I love this portrait of Mrs. Obama. The dress distracts your eye from her, just as the role of FLOTUS distracted us from truly seeing her.

    But if you look carefully and focus on Mrs. Obama you see that her beauty and grace are emphasized by the posture of her arms and the position of her head. And the face is marvelous: Determined, self controlled, clear eyed.
    In French: "Formidable" !!

  106. She’s unidentifiable. No resemblance at all.

  107. Wow... didn't know so much political bias could be interpreted from a painting.
    Sign of the times the liberal establishment (NYT's readers) can't limit their comments to the quality of the artwork.

  108. Unique.

  109. Both are totally appropriate and accurately reflects for what the POTUS and FLOTUS stood :-]

  110. I predict. Trump will commission a portrait about 12 hours after he reads this article, CORRECTION: after one of his aids reads this article and tell him about it.

  111. No doubt. He's worse than a spoiled brat.

  112. ...or he sees it on Fox News!

  113. Wow. Michelle's portrait is just silly, doesn't look a thing like her, and is actually embarrassing. Barack's is pretty accurate, reflective, and respectful... except for that God-awful background. Ain't nuttin' respectful about that background, but both bring stereotypes to mind.

  114. The picture of Michelle doesn't look like her at all.

    And I don't think Obama looks like an "alert and troubled thinker."

  115. Are you looking at the same portraits? Obama's doesn't look terrible but why are his hands so big, why is he sitting in weeds, so many questions. Michelle's is just flat out horrible. Looks like it was drawn by an amateur.

    And also your comments show that we were not seeing the same POTUS and FLOTUS either.

  116. I LOVE both these portraits! IMO, each brings the soul of the client remarkably to the canvas -- Barack Obama, as a peaceful, introspective, quietly strong individual; and Michelle Obama, as a strong independent black woman. These portraits brought these perspectives to light for me -- perspectives I had realized but not visualized before. I can't wait to visit them!

  117. I was shown Michelles' picture without any information. I didn't have a clue who it was. I can't believe an artist wouldn't be able to tell that there was no resemblance. Just a horrible painting.

  118. The Obamas, especially Barack, always seemed to go out of their way to not emphasize their race. They didn't hide it, of course, and both seemed very proud of their heritage and culture, but they also strove to de-emphasize race and play up inclusiveness and shared values across racial lines.

    Choosing black artists to do their official portraits was not a surprise, but in a way it was. Or perhaps, and more to the point, the Obamas chose the portraitures as a vehicle to state, unmistakably, their unique difference from all their predecessors in the White House. It is as if they said to themselves, in choosing the artists, yes, we were the first black couple to serve the country as President and First Lady; let's not forget or overlook that moment.

  119. Beautiful portraits. Seeing them makes me wish we had them back in the WH. Their tireless empathy and endearing grace is truly missed. This past year with the arrogant buffoon has made the last year seem like an eternity.

  120. I like his - it's kooky and cool. But she is so much more beautiful than that.

  121. I agree. It's a beautiful painting, but it doesn't really do her justice.

  122. President Obama's portrait is terrific - thinking, feeling, and connecting on many different levels. And the First Lady's could also have been terrific in tone, feel, and structure, but I just don't think it looks like her or captures her power. Opportunity missed there.

  123. The portrait of the president himself does what a good photograph does and indeed the artist worked from photos..The placement seems to be sliding the figure off the painting while the relentless monotony of the background in no way suggests the dynamic background of his presidency. In this regard the painting is slickly done, but misses the boat.
    Michelle Obama's dress is nicely painted...but where is the strength of the woman who stood up to bigotry? This artist may use greyed tonal values in her portraits, but sometimes that's not enough to tell the story of such a strong woman. This may make it onto a cover of a fashion magazine.
    I think both are about 7 out of 10..

  124. His is a 3, hers is a 4. I can't see a real president floating in greenery. Should have been a patio with potted plants and the chair firmly set on the tiles--grounded, as it were.

    Why is Mrs Obama posed as a model with her hand under her chin? And why isn't she smiling?

  125. I'm replying to myself...After looking at the portraits again I would like to revise my rating: 5 out of 10 for Obama's... It is just too slick for those 8 years and the truncated body position speaks little of what he had to stand against..That artist really missed it.

  126. Amateurish , A good metaphor for the last eight years.

  127. Mr. Calhoun's remark seems
    Uninformed. An unfortunate echo of so many assessments of President Obama's time in office.

  128. Well, now you're havingnothing but professionalism and competence in the Trump WH.

  129. First of all, I think you meant "here". That was an "amateur" mistake, but we forgive you. Also, I'm sure that you are quite impressed by the Trump administration.

  130. I find it intriguing, too, that the Michelle Obama depicted isn't the strong woman that I've come to admire, but rather the real woman who has paid the considerable price to appear the strong woman that a nation can admire.

    Well done!

  131. I'm a long time fan of Kehinde Wiley, and I like the portrait he made of President Obama VERY MUCH. He's depicted the president in an interesting way. He's looking at us, waiting for us to speak. He's listening. He's not imposing or "regal" (as is Wiley's usual way of depicting his subjects). There's no double or hidden meaning in the picture. He is what he is; calm and engaged, and, most of all, fully present for us.
    The big surprise, for me, is how wonderful Mrs. Obama's portrait is. Sublime. The picture just screams grace, beauty, and thoughtfulness. It's riveting to look at. I'd love to see it in person.

  132. Holland Cotter's review of these paintings, and of the context for President Obama's, is a model for writing about art, with every judgement backed up with direct observations. I'm going to use it as a model in my intro to art history college courses. It's even better that use since I don't agree that Mrs. Obama's portrait is flawed. I love the way her long arms and direct gaze just manage to balance out the dress. Mrs. Obama is that beautifully nuanced as a public persona.

  133. Wonderful portraits. I wish they would be displayed together.

  134. I miss them so much.

  135. These portraits are unintentionally spot-on: they are representations of symbols and the symbolic gesture of having ascended to the most powerful of offices -- except that this isn't genuine representation; rather, it is the abstraction of ideas of who the Obamas are and who many Americans (the artists, in particular) wish them to be. Such idealism is of course not new but what a NYT writer may find a depiction of '...an alert and troubled thinker...' is, well, perhaps a best-case interpretation, a wishful one. And so it is more than appropriate that symbolism would illustrate symbols rather than more standard representations -- and thus, the impact of his having been twice elected is unfortunately lessened.

    History will judge the Obama tenure just as history judges art. Let's hope it paints a more honest portrait.

  136. Pretty embarrassing if you ask me. Just think these hideous depictions will be displayed for all to see for a long time.

  137. President Obama's portrait is at least interesting, although for myself, the background, symbolism notwithstanding, is too much. But the First Lady's portrait doesn't even look like her (!), a commonly shared opinion that your critic amusingly, and completely missed.

  138. Barack Obama's portrait is unique, explosive and wonderful. Not for him the usual stiffly posed man in a suit revealing nothing! Cheers to the artist. Michelle Obama's portrait on the other hand, does not do her justice - the gray skin, imperfectly drawn face do not show her strength and beauty as it should. I wanted to see the REAL Michelle, not an op-art, abstract expressionistic Andy Warhol piece of portraiture. Great for his, meh for hers! She's better than that - should have used a photo instead!

  139. The portrait of Michelle Obama doesn't look like her at all! If the article didn't accompany the photo I would have no idea whose portrait it is. President Obama's, on the other hand, is awesome, as is he.

  140. Very beautiful.

  141. The last place I would sit a former President of the US for a portrait is in a field of flowers. His face is so serious, with wrinkles from past worries etched into it. It looks ridiculous. I don't think the portrait that is supposed to depict Michelle Obama looks anything like her. The former First Lady is much more attractive and never dressed in "art to wear" like this dress. This portrait looks more like it is a woman who is a Beyoncé wannabe. I hope the official White House portraits reflect their personality and physical looks much better than this.

  142. What a wonderful treat it was to see and hear the Obama's this morning; just to remember the way we were.

  143. One thing's for sure. When Trump's portrait is painted, it will have a great big shiny gold frame that would feel right at home at the Palace of Versailles.

  144. "His engaged and assertive demeanor contradicts — and cosmetically corrects — the impression he often made in office of being philosophically detached from what was going on around him"

    Anyone who cared enough to look beyond the daily grind of power politics would know that President Obama is at heart an intellectual who thinks and cares deeply about philosophy, politics and our human condition. The president's portrait captures exactly how I view and love to think about this great man.

    In my view, former First Lady Michele Obama's portrait also goes beyond what is historically required: as a descendant of slaves, coupled with the current African American economic condition within US inner cities, it was an imperative that her portrait reveal the fundamental truths about who she is, and, about recognition of the human dignity that she and her fellow citizens are being denied by so many for so long. This is the Michele Obama with whom many, if not most, African-American women can identify: simply shorn and unadorned.

  145. Although I have only the photos to go on my first impressions are that the President's portrait works and that Michelle Obama's is a disappointment. I agree with the critic that the face doesn't much look like her's, at least from the many photos I've seen. It doesn't seem to capture her beauty, grace and dignity. I'll reserve final judgment until I see them.

    I loved the takedown of the Clinton portrait. I visited the gallery last week with a friend. We both thought it was terrible and wondered what possibly could have possessed Clinton to have chosen the artist. Her quote: "Using his signature mosaic-like painting technique, Mr. Close turns the 42nd president into a pixelated clown." quite captured my revulsion.

  146. Amazing portraits. Not garden variety but definitely does distinguish the Obama's as outstanding. Great works.

  147. In fact, when I look at Obama's portrait "Garden" variety is exactly what comes to mind.

  148. Too bad - both paintings are undignified and unworthy of their subjects.

  149. Not only is there not a gallery for First Ladies' portraits, there is one at the American History Museum, which is also part of the Smithsonian, for their dresses. Because if you are a woman you are what you wear and your dress will be displayed on a faceless mannequin forever but if you are a man?

  150. The portraits reflect the Obama's choices: both astound. We expect a simple background behind him; but he is captured here in (not a background at all) a mid ground seeking to become foreground: his figure as a strong will prevailing before a profuse wall of blossoming, flowering life (almost feminine). It is arresting and makes you wonder if he was struggling to become part of the background more than the background was struggling to overtake him. In these days of DT, one can more appreciate his preference for being part of the "foil" or background...
    Whereas Michelle's surprises us because the background is so flat: pale blue, the color of peace. Yet she is cloaked in a gown in which blocks of black and white vie for supremacy, and grey is where they meet. There is a little bit of bright color, indicating she has bright character. The most surprising thing of all to me is the ashy tone of her skin: but I think that was chosen in the sense of the grey on the gown: a place where black places its bold statement on a white field and creates a small place of compromise and intermingling. We are used to seeing her smile, but here, her face here is stern and radiates strength, resolve. BTW, her ecru inauguration dress was the photographic negative of Jackie's pink suit on the day JFK was shot. Somehow, nobody seemed to pick up on that. But they would have, if he'd been shot: negatives would have shown images strikingly similar to JFK's positive pics, I'm sure.

  151. Is Barack's supposed to look like that meme where Homer Simpson is fading back into the bushes? Deep.

  152. It does not look like Michelle Obama.

  153. I see some Joe Biden in Obama's face and head in this portrait.

  154. Horrible looking painting by Wiley. No surprise there.

  155. Barack's is amazing, but am I the only one who doesn't see the likeness of Michelle in that painting? She has such a striking face. I wouldn't have known the painting was supposed to be her if it hadn't been referenced.

  156. As I scrolled down, my reaction to seeing the portrait was an out-loud, "WOW!" It's a very interesting work of art, especially given its context, but you're right, it's not a strong likeness.

  157. I agree on both counts. Barack's is wonderful, but Michelle's is a disappointment. She is so much more beautiful than as portrayed in this painting. Is a do-over possible?

  158. I agree! Former President Obama's portrait is spectacular, but the former first lady's is blah and doesn't do such an attractive and stylish woman justice - it doesn't look like her, and the bland coloring hurts my eyes and make me not want to look at that portrait.

  159. Sorry to admit that I'm not as impressed with the paintings as I am with the grace an humility shown by the former president and first lady during the unveiling. The Obamas provide a model for what the first family should be.

  160. They're stunning. Presidential, dignified, American, African-American, modern, creative, beautiful. It's a little weird not so see them, especially Michelle, with the big smiles we see in almost every photograph, but these portraits capture so much more, the complete and complex persons behind the public smiles.

  161. I am surprised that Holland Cotter believes that “[a]t some level, all portraits are propaganda, political or personal.” Surely, the best portraits are revealing rather than misleading.

    Cotter finds Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama “cosmetically corrects” the impression that Obama was “philosophically detached” when president. To me, the portrait shows the engaged and determined man behind the carefully-constructed exterior.

    Perhaps that mostly white dress in Amy Sherald’s portrait of Mrs. Obama, which “feels as as if it were the real subject of the portrait,” is the white society within which Mrs. Obama operates. And those “blips and patches” may be more suggestive of quilt patterns than African textiles. Quilts have always been made by women—and some made by slaves are thought to contain coded references to the Underground Railroad. The dress is about a lot more than “couturial spectacle.”

    Leave it to the Obamas to make their portraits worth seeing—and thinking about.

  162. Good point about the dress, but the face in the former First Lady's portrait could have better captured her personality.
    The Barack Obama portrait is wonderful.

  163. I agree that there's more to these paintings than just capturing a likeness; I imagine with time that more people will get that.

    But thanks for bringing your thoughts on the dress. And for giving us some more to think about.

  164. Such strong and interesting portraits of each of the Obamas, and each portrait portrays a different personality, who together were greater than the sum of the parts.

    Everything the Obamas were during their 8 years in the White House, Trump is not--highly intelligent, caring, decent human beings who could deal with complexity and nuance, provided a sense of competence and stability, and had a spontaneous, insightful, and delightful sense of humor and the ridiculous. Trump is merely ridiculous.

    So who will paint Trump's portrait? I suggest Tom Toles, the cartoonist for the Washington Post.

  165. I suggest Paul McCarthy, the LA artist who is a master of the grotesque.

  166. PB..thank you for the Link to Tom Toles...made me appreciate that ANY representation of Barack and Michelle is honorable, whether it appeals to our individual perceptions of "good" art or not!

  167. I think the portraits are fabulous. The amount of negativity around these portraits is like a Rorschach test.. And it shows a great degree of extreme reactivity to the Obamas being portrayed as the unique African Americans that they are. Seems like people want some stuffy portrait like George Washington's.

  168. I love the Obama's but these portraits are more like magazine covers done with a computer sofware

  169. @JRV,
    Wasn't it a proffered choice of Obamas?

  170. I wait to see the portraits in person. I know a photo can't do them justice but they look amazing and refreshing much like the pair themselves.
    What a wonderful legacy- filled with grace, compassion, intelligence, courage, humor, true leadership...- the Obamas have created and shared with the country and the world and these portraits will stand to remind us of that.
    A legacy that can't be undone, unraveled, by anyone.
    Congratulations and thanks to Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley for their beautiful work.

  171. I nominate Peter Saul to do Trump's portrait

  172. there is a a powerful Mandela like look and feel to The Preident's portrait.

  173. Well done.

  174. I think Trump was the artist of both paintings.

  175. I first began my teaching career when President Obama took office in 2009. Now, almost a decade later, I reflect back on a man who really seemed to care about education and the future of America's youth. The Obamas were particularly groundbreaking in embracing the technology, tools, and innovations of the 21st century to bring this goal forward. While Mr. Obama really honed in on STEM advocacy, Mrs. Obama promoted basic, healthful nutrition in American schools and girls' leadership programs. They were true cheerleaders of positively shaping todays' 21st century students.. To me, these portraits are wonderfully modern and seem to embody all that the Obamas stood for. How wonderful!

  176. The portraits are as unique in their style as the subjects are in American history.
    I think they are great. It will be fun to see them in person.

  177. Gauguin comes to mind.

  178. Enjoyed the article, but unless I'm really misunderstanding something, I think you're mistaken to suggest that a space for portraits of first women would be a lasting monument to #MeToo. Wouldn't a permanent space be a monument to the important role that women have played in our (presidential) history, rather than to the long-overdue reckoning with sexual harassment and assault?

  179. I think they're both amazing portraits. Barack Obama's, in particular, is striking. Well done

  180. “Mr. Wiley depicts Mr. Obama not as a self-assured, standard-issue bureaucrat, but as an alert and troubled thinker.” In spite of Mr. Obama's countenance in the portrait, the greenery and flowers to me convey a soothing tranquility President Obama gave to the nation in spite of the incessant and malicious political attacks. Coming on the heels of a nation pulling out of a winter of severe (almost a depression) economic crisis of 2008, the greenery suggests a come back to a rejuvenating spring of economic revival.

  181. Naturally there will be controversy and strong opinions about ANY Presidential Portrait. No question about it: these are interesting paintings and indicative of our time. I think both artists are really good ones. But - and this is where my disappointment lies - do these paintings honor the true nature of the Obama Presidency? Do they portray the distinguished and historic weightiness of their subjects? Or do they bend toward fashion and celebrity instead? I am sorry to say the paintings feel more like a commission from T Magazine than official portraits to reside at the Smithsonian. There was an opportunity here that was missed. Not unlike the Obama post-Presidency, truth be told. And it's hard to ignore that while Mrs. Obama's portrait is dramatic and in many ways quite good - it doesn't resemble her particularly.

  182. That's a shame that's your interpretation of the portraits. I'm not sure how much a fan you are of African American art of the last thirty or so years but I think these are very different for many of us than they are for you.

  183. Well, perhaps, as you point out, "fashion and celebrity" and "opportunity missed" do reflect much of what were the Obama's.

  184. Thank you for being a brave dissenter. I love the Obamas and miss them sorely, but these portraits are awful.

  185. As an alternative illustration, our very fine President Barack Obama should have been pictured mounted on a Republican capital R - signifying a cross - in a crucifixion pose reminiscent of Jesus Christ to demonstrate his uplifting social and political messages of fairness, decency, compassion, intelligence, thoughtfulness and humanity....juxtaposed against a sea of foaming, tiny, tiny, little Republican men throwing rocks and sticks at him.

    That's what happened in America from Jan 20 2009 to Jan 20 2017.

    Barack Obama was a great man and great President...and a good Christian....who was crucified by the worst group of fake Christians this world has seen in centuries.

    Thank you for your service, sir.

  186. True. True. Except, he still IS a great man and was a great President (except for the drone wars, imho).

  187. Both portraits are aesthetically striking and powerfully evocative of the people they represent. They only make me miss these extraordinary people even more.

  188. Michelle Obama deserves a full refund.

  189. Yes, absolutely. I'm particularly concerned about her skin tone was not honored. It was/is a rich tone; this portrait doesn't capture its warmth. It's rather greenish in tone and Mrs. Obama was not that tone.

  190. And a redo. Awful.

  191. I agree. She has depth, strength, empathy, and intellect, which this portrait does not capture. Michelle Obama was far more than her dresses.

  192. Obama the shrinking violet?


    I don't like it.

  193. People have defended the depictions as supposedly not being photographs but art. But this dutiful reviewer comments on Mr. Obama's having "photo-realistic precision." Also, about Ms. Obama's, the brave reviewer lets slip, "but [it] could be almost anyone’s face." Yeah, huh? JFK's special circumstances were conveyed in a highly creative way. These are supposed to be portraits of public servants for the general voting public, not for avante guarde art gallery patrons alone. There could be some creativity--true creativity--that took this essential purpose into consideration while still conveying something unique, as in the first non-all-white First Family. Sorry, two thumbs down.

  194. general voting public? the wahoos who don't go to galleries and voted for Donald. your average reality tv viewer. phooey. portraiture has always been about art, symbolism, the best of the time. not the best of 200 yrs ago.

  195. We're in the a shaky and bizarre time,so of course there some who take issue but not just that--it's Obama,so some still have issues. I am certain toddler-in-chief will have some Twitter quip at some point and likely not a clever one either.

    I digress...so good to see 44th. He's become quite elusive!