What's the secret political meaning behind the dress in Michelle Obama's portrait?

Feb 14, 2018, 18:18
What's the secret political meaning behind the dress in Michelle Obama's portrait?

The former first couple attended the unveiling of their portraits, which is a rite of passage for most former presidents.

The portrait of former President Obama featured him sitting in a chair against a flat backdrop of ivy and flowers, painted by African-American painter Kehinde Wiley.

"Both of these artists want people to - especially young people to look at their work and see themselves in it", Dorothy Moss, with the National Portrait Gallery, said. One wonders what the sitter divulged to the portraitist, who has experienced her own trials-deaths in the family, a heart transplant.

Cillizza: Tell me about the artist who created the Michelle Obama portrait. The event was also significant as it was for the first time that not one, but two African-American artists were selected to paint the former POTUS and the FLOTUS. Ms. Sherald's image of Mrs. Obama overemphasizes an element of couturial spectacle, but also projects a rock-solid cool. Using this the gray, she says, is a way for her to comment on race without confronting the viewer. As it is now installed, the former president's troubled, thoughtful gaze is fixed on a large photograph of labor leader and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph picketing the 1948 Republican Convention with a sign that reads, "If we must die let us die as free men, not Jim Crow slaves".

The plea, which was expressed by many avid fans of the headline-making tan suit that Obama wore to a 2014 press conference, was met with same savvy Photoshop skills. A coworker noted that Michelle's portrait didn't look like it belonged next to Barack's. In this way, Sherald wondrously troubles assumptions about blackness and representation in portraiture.

Image National Portrait, Smithsonian Institution
Image National Portrait, Smithsonian Institution

Sherald, like the former president, spoke highly of Michelle Obama, describing her as "a human being with integrity, intelligence, confidence and compassion". The tenure of the first black First Lady was defined by her no-nonsense charm, her easy beauty, her rhetorical gifts, her championing of healthy meals for the young and the poor. The dress has captured people's attention because of what a gorgeous garment it is, but there's also a little more behind it: It captures Michelle's modernity and openness during her tenure as First Lady.

The spring 2017 dress that inspired Milly's recent design for Michelle Obama.

I think the portrait is one answer. "What have we done?"

Art historian Paul Staiti says the Obama portraits - full of color and unique concepts - are fresh and exciting in a field of generally staid presidential portraiture. Wiley is well-known for his depictions of African Americans in grandiose settings, and Obama joked that he had to ask him to tone it down for the piece. An earlier victor of the same contest that Sherald won in 2016 made his portraits by digitally scanning his subjects as they lay on a table.

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