I’ve long appreciated the arts, encouraging my students to broaden their horizons and discover the best mankind can produce. Michaelangelo, Raphael, Da Vinci, the Dutch masters, people who produced timeless beauty, masterworks for all time. Portraits of our presidents are not, for the most part, in that league, but they have encompassed a kind of dignity befitting the office, a preservation of consequential men for the ages. Until now.
The official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama have been unveiled in the National Portrait Gallery. The portrait of Mr. Obama, painted by Kehinde Wiley, and the portrait of Michelle Obama, rendered by Amy Sherald are, to say the least, a break from tradition. Let us first view a representative sampling of presidential portraits:
They share certain qualities: dignity, a seriousness of purpose, classic style and execution, and above all, they are technically accomplished. They actually resemble the subjects of the portraits–with one exception:
While it does resemble Barack Obama facially, the perspective is wrong. It resembles a bad photoshop. The greenery is not in correct perspective with the chair, whose back leg is in the wrong place, and its overall proportions are wrong. Nor is it in proper perspective with Obama. His feet appear to be floating in mid air, particularly the left foot, which is cocked at an odd angle. Notice a black line extending from what appears to be a break in the greenery over his left shoulder, across his left cheek, and extending under his lips. The lighting on his face is also not reflected anywhere else in the portrait.
And then there are the hands. They’re ridiculously large, and his left hand appears to have a sixth finger:
Perhaps the artist has a thing for the polydactyl?
And what’s up with the greenery? Is it suggestive of his Choom Gang days? Perhaps it depicts a rebirth, a glorious springtime of Obama? It looks like neophyte poster art. And then there is Mrs. Obama:
Apart from the unmistakable fact the portrait does not resemble her–at all–the hands are also out of proportion, particularly to the head and face. The dress is…its…it’s the focal point of the portrait, and it’s ridiculously ugly and essentially shapeless. I had no idea Mrs. Obama was so gray. This portrait too seems almost two-dimensional.
Neither portrait appears to have been done by a professional, accomplished portrait artist. Of course, gentle readers, I am not a distinguished art critic, but I am capable of recognizing things like actual artistic talent and accomplishment. These portraits don’t qualify.
I suspect the Obamas would be happier with something like this:
And this might be fun too:
I’m sure The New York Times would not agree. Let’s sample some of the comments of their readers:
I love them. They are bold and showcase innovative and brilliant American artists. One legacy of the Obamas is that they push us to think more, see more and learn more. These portraits do that. SALLY DRAKE
I think both portraits are fantastic. I love that they both chose black artists for this. I definitely would have felt a way if they hadn’t. ANGELA KIRKLAND
They certainly push me to think “what could these artists, and the Obamas, have been thinking? I do suspect, however, in years to come, people will gaze upon these portraits and considering the Obama’s time in the White House, find them oddly fitting.