An Unprecedented Presidential Portrait

Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait, as posted on Kehinde Wiley’s Instagram page (@kehindewiley)

It is very rare that we see paintings make a big wave in social media the way that other art like films and music get recognized.  Works by painters won’t ensue much online chatter, retweets or Instagram posts when he or she first unveils them. However, this past week, we saw this happen with Barack Obama’s official portrait.  The former president had personally chosen New York based painter, Kehinde Wiley, for his portrait.  Wiley is known for his grand paintings featuring African-American men and women, combining modernly dressed figures juxtaposed by surroundings inspired by the Rococo Period (from the late eighteenth century) such as floral patterns.  This striking juxtaposition of new and old mixed with the masterfulness in which he creates his figures create rich and beautiful pieces that have rightfully made him a well-known modern artist.  Having been a fan of Wiley’s work ever since I saw his a few of his pieces at the Detroit Institute of Art, and subsequently learning more about him in my studies, I was excited to hear the name of an artist I recognized when the painter of the newest portrait was announced.  When the painting was revealed, I was not surprised at all that I loved it.  While Wiley may not have gone as extreme and extravagant on this piece as he has on others, this portrait was still extremely striking.  I especially love that Obama is sitting in a rather serious position that commands attention and respect, yet he is surrounded by flowers and leaves.  I feel it shows a humanness that is truly beautiful.  After this painting was released, I was curious what the presidential portraits of the past looked like.  As I looked back through them, I mostly saw a sea of muddy colors. Many of the pieces looked nearly identical—the president staring off into the distance making some grand pose. While many of these works were beautifully crafted, there is no denying that they are repetitive and a bit boring compared to the newest dynamic edition.  If Obama’s goal was to be the piece that catches your eye first, he has definitely succeeded. Although some may think it lacks the traditions that the portraits of the past have had, it seems that may be a good thing. These portraits should mirror the style of their time to provide the viewer with the most accurate experience if they look at it years down the line.  Overall, as an art student, it was really inspiring to see an old art form such as painting make such a big wave with so many people today.

Maggie Abell

Maggie is a sophomore at Stamps School of Art and Design. She hopes to do a lot of things with her life ... at some point. She loves singing, movies, and most of all, her dog, Winifred.

Leave a Reply

3 Comments on "An Unprecedented Presidential Portrait"

1 year 3 months ago

Love your commentary, Maggie. I enjoy how the artist chose the use of flowers to represent the president’s background in a visually historical way: Chicago, Kenya and Hawaii.

Karen Abell
1 year 3 months ago

I too was struck by the uniqueness of the president’s portrait. Thank you for the info about the artist.

Amanda i
1 year 4 months ago

I agree. The contrast between the floral background and the seriousness of Obama is striking to say the least