The Mystery of Amy Sherald’s Portrait of Michelle Obama

“We can’t not recognize the important significance of representation in art and the decision that this president and first lady have made in choosing artists like ourselves”, said Kehinde Wiley, a Yale University-trained painter who was the first African-American artist to execute an official presidential portrait for the National Portrait Gallery.

The unveiling of the Obama portraits at the National Gallery was always going to be a huge moment, and it sure as hell didn’t disappoint.

It’s also been revealed that the backdrop on the 44th president’s portrait – by artist Kehinde Wiley – is filled with symbolism of his upbringing.

Mr Barack Obama was given the “brush off” – not once, but twice – by artist Kehinde Wiley.

Then President Obama and Wiley went to unveil their portrait. President Obama is set against a riot of greenery that, according to the artist, charts “his path on Earth through those plants”.

“The former first lady’s gaze is steady and direct, her hair loose around her face, and her pose is framed by her bare arms”.

Wiley, an established artist whose work is held by prominent museums worldwide, has produced a characteristically flat, nearly polished surface, with intensely rich colors and a busy, sumptuous background that recalls his interest in portraiture.

There’s no right way to react to any piece of art – let alone to the official portrait of America’s first black president.

“And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives”, she continued, “because I was one of those girls”.

“When I’m approaching these guys, there’s a presupposed engagement”, Wiley told Art Newspaper in 2008. The use of gray is a political statement of sorts for Sherald, in which she discards the assigned “color” of African-American subjects. Her works stand in direct opposition to prejudice and discrimination while questioning contemporary definitions of identity.

“I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon”, he said.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The reaction in the art world to the Michelle Obama portrait will be/is _”.

Michelle is a great-great-granddaughter of slaves, a fact she always said in her eight years in the White House to demonstrate the hard progress of her ethnic group. Both Wiley and Sherald’s work reflect the evolution of the American narrative, as mirrored in Obama’s historical presidency. A seatmate snapped, “They said ‘We miss you,’ what do you think they’d say?”

“Shout-out to my mother-in-law, who, in addition to providing the hotness genes, also has been such an extraordinary rock and foundation stone for our family”, the former president said at the unveiling ceremony. In public exit interviews, Michelle Obama is open about her relief that the eight years are over.

The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery Unveils Portrait of President Barack Obama