From the Left



Official portraits test our feelings about the Obama era

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

Well, what did you think?

What sounded to me like the Gasp Heard 'Round the World followed the unveilings of the official portraits of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

Or, as my own immediate, largely unschooled and low-brow reaction sounded, "Ooooh ... ahhhh ... huh?!!!"

Ah, well. I have learned from past experience with such high-profile reveals that it is best to give the work of great artists, as in the work of great vineyards, time to prove their value.

New York based artist Kehinde Wiley, who painted the president's portrait, and Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, who painted Mrs. Obama, are the first African-Americans commissioned to paint official portraits of the first couple for the National Portrait Gallery.

That's significant when you're talking about the nation's first and, so far, only First Family of color -- and each artist has won high praise for their distinct ways of presenting black subjects.

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Wiley painted Obama sitting in a chair, looking back at us like the community organizer he used to be, necktie gone, eyes intensely looking at us.

Sherald painted Michelle Obama in "grayscale" -- a charcoal color with taupe undertones. She's seated, with her hair falling around her shoulders, in a bold floor-length dress. Large geometric stripes and checkerboard trim, but mostly large blank white spaces. The design strikes me as lovely, like a fashion photo, but intriguingly incomplete -- like a coloring book that only has begun to be filled in.

That's how a lot of us Americans feel these days: diverse and divided, the opposite of what candidate Obama sought a decade ago. As with statues of Abraham Lincoln's likenesses, the placid serenity we see only hints at the torrents offstage.

I pounced on Twitter after the unveiling and tweeted my own idea for a title for the Barack portrait: "POTUS in a Garden?"


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