A Most Extraordinary Week: Unveiling the Obama Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery
Updated: Jul 6, 2019
By any measure, it has been a remarkable week, starting with the unveiling of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama's portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald at the National Portrait Gallery last Monday. After almost two years of secret deliberations, fundraising, and preparation it was no small relief to have literally "pulled the curtains" off the pictures without an advanced leak of the images. While we had kept the circle very small – restricted to the artists, the first couple, our Board of Commissioners, and staff—I had lived in constant fear that somewhere along the line some detail would get out.
Fig. 1. Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald, Me, David Skorton, Michelle Obama and Barack Obama on stage. We are all in a great mood!
Interest in the paintings and the process had been voracious since October when Kehinde and Amy were revealed as the artists of choice. I can't imagine the pressure they must have lived under if my own experience was anything to go by. No detail was too small for the media's scrutiny, and my favorite question was, "Did Amy Sherald serve tea to the First Lady, and if so, what kind?" The truth was I have no idea, and I still don't…although now that I think about it, I will ask Amy next time I see her! Kudos goes to National Portrait Gallery curators Taína Caragol and Dorothy Moss who attended sittings and kept me in the loop but remained very discrete. Thanks also go to the registrars, art handlers and communications teams at the gallery whom I drove completely mad with over-the-top security precautions. To say I was a bit neurotic is probably an understatement.
Fig. 2 & 3. President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley, and Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald.
The morning of February 12 was an absolute whirlwind. I had practiced my speeches in front of the staff the week before, so I didn't feel too nervous, and truth be told the entire Kogod Courtyard felt like a giant family reunion full of encouragement and good-humor. Supporters of the museum, Smithsonian colleagues, members of the Obama's family, former staff, and friends joined press from around the World in a spirit of joyous expectation. It was a party at eight a.m. as people cleared through security and waited for the guests of honor! It was amusing to see that despite Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Steven Spielberg, Kate Capshaw, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Gayle King, Eric Holder and other notables in the room; everyone went crazy when Amy and Kehinde arrived! Way to go artists…out celebrity-ing the celebrities!
Former Vice President Joe Biden arrived backstage in time to stand with the Secretary of the Smithsonian Dr. David Skorton and I to welcome Mr. and Mrs. Obama to the museum. He thought it was a bit amusing that we included him in the receiving line, "I have met them before, you know," he said with a smile.
I had met President Obama when the Smithsonian took the president's 3D portrait in the dining room of the White House in 2015, and it turned out he remembered me. At the time we had talked about Abraham Lincoln's life masks and lamented how President Lincoln had aged over the four-year period of the Civil War. How apropos then, that we were meeting again on the occasion of Lincoln's 209th birthday to unveil his own portrait!
Fig. 4. Pete Souza took this picture of President Obama sitting for his 3D portrait in 2015. I'm standing right in the back with my arms crossed ... see me...next to the President's left ear?!
Fig. 5. On the left is President Abraham Lincoln's life mask in 1860 after Clark Mills, and to the right his life mask in 1865 by Leonard Wells Volk in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. When I showed these to President Obama, we discussed how the two portraits show the toll the Civil War took on Lincoln's health.
The truth however, is that Michelle Obama lights up a room. I am sure the president knows that he's really No. 2 when she's by his side; and he has this amusing smile as he watches the rest of us eagerly reach for her hand. The former First Lady talked warmly about her daughters and asked after my sons, and later the couple's genuine love of family was demonstrated when they invited Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald's relatives back stage to meet them and take photos; delaying their departure until everyone had had a chance to chat, take pictures and get a hug.
Through the efforts of the amazing professionals at Smithsonian central and the National Portrait Gallery in particular – you are a force Concetta, Marielba, and Ellie—I was scheduled to talk with journalists until three p.m. and on at least one occasion Kehinde and I joined the other's interview and waxed lyrical about indoor and outdoor fictional spaces; comparing Gilbert Stuart's Lansdowne portrait of George Washington with his own of Barack Obama. This, upon reflection, was probably more than one news crew wanted to know, and their eyes may have been glazing over.
With media and celebratory events in honor of the artists going well into the night, I didn't have time to truly read any of the critical reviews and amazing press until the next day. Wow. Within 24 hours 3,000 articles had circulated and the #myNPG had gained 98 million Twitter and 33.3 million Instagram impressions – and we knew that was just a fraction of the reality, as most people didn't use the hash tags in their communications. Ellie Skochdopole, our social media maven is convinced we "broke the internet"… perhaps not, but it felt good to know that portraiture was trending everywhere for a while …around the World!
The following morning before opening to the public, the Portrait Gallery's art handlers installed the paintings and we held a second round of press previews for those whom we could not include the day before. In many ways this was a more substantive opportunity for the media, as they were able to see the paintings up-close, professionally lit, and ask questions of our curators and historians. Brandon Brame Fortune the Portrait Gallery's chief curator gave people an orientation of the America's President's galleries and explained the mission of the museum to collect and show the portraits of those who have made an impact of American history and culture. It is important, I am convinced, to get a sense of the historical context into which the two Obama portraits have been added for future generations.
Then the doors opened, and the public came…in droves! We had set up stanchions to help people wanting to take photographs in front of the pictures, and the line to see President Obama snaked through the second floor galleries, down the stairs and into the courtyard. As I write this blog post, the queues continue – with 72,146 people visiting in the past six days!
Undoubtedly the most exiting aspect of this week however has been the national debate about the role of portraiture and the impact of having the first African American President and First Lady depicted by black artists included in the Gallery. While Amy Sherald's portrait of Michelle Obama has confused some with its grey skin tones and stylized features, and Kehinde Wiley's bright colors and unique background has been lamented by others as not suitably "dignified; the four protagonists—sitters and artists—have upended visual traditions concerning the representation of power. Attempting to bypass racial comparisons by changing skin color and replacing formalist settings for symbolic ones, the American public has, as writer Chiquita Paschal noted, been required to "relearn how to see blackness and individuality."[i]
Its exciting to debate identity politics and contemporary culture through the lens of portraiture, and while I firmly believe you have to see Amy Sherald's picture in person to truly appreciate how much Amy has totally captured the First Lady's features, and Kehinde Wiley's portrait joins Elaine de Kooning's portrait of John F. Kennedy in the evolution of modern art; at the end of the day the paintings provide a fresh chapter on which to write American history. That I, and my team of thoughtful colleagues at the National Portrait Gallery, helped bring this art historical moment about, not only makes me terribly proud, but made for a week that feels both momentous and highly consequential.
Fig. 6. The friendship between Michelle Obama and Amy Sherald was obvious as soon as their painting was unveiled. The portraits of both Michelle Obama and Barack Obama are now installed and professionally lit in the galleries -- so come and see them for yourself!
[i] Paschal, Chiquita. "It's OK to Feel Ambivalent about Michele Obama's Official Portrait." Hyperallergic Feb 13, 2018. https://hyperallergic.com/427123/ambivalence-amy-sherald-michelle-obama-portrait/