Game-changing Obama portraits are coming to SF


Barack Obama made history when he was elected president in 2008, and now his groundbreaking presidential and first lady portraits of Michelle Obama have arrived in San Francisco, opening at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park on June 18, where they will be on display until August 14.

The Obama Portraits Tour is part of a unique seven-city tour that kicked off in Chicago, Illinois in June 2021. Stops in San Francisco and Boston, the final two on the trip, were added later. The tour, organized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the repository of all presidential portraits, was hugely popular, prompting the Smithsonian to extend it through October.

Both portraits are unlike any other presidential or first lady portraits, and both were painted by black artists.

Tom Campbell, director and CEO of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, said the portraits “speak of the sense of hope and possibility that the Obamas inspire,” and praised the artists for expanding and critiqued the artistic conventions that have traditionally defined depictions of power. .

“We are thrilled that Bay Area audiences have the opportunity to experience these powerful and iconic paintings in person at the de Young Museum,” he said.

“Barack Obama” by Kehinde Wiley, oil on canvas, 2018 (Courtesy Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery) President Barack Obama

The portrait of Obama, which represents him seated on the edge of a chair, surrounded by flowers and foliage, was produced by Kehinde Wiley. The Los Angeles native and San Francisco Art Institute graduate is known for his vibrant large-scale paintings that use the European portraiture tradition to portray contemporary African Americans.

The portrait of Michelle Obama, painted by Amy Sherald, is a counterpoint to that of her husband. It depicts her in a flowing dress, an alert but serene look on her face, against a plain sky blue background. Sherald is the first woman and the first African American to win the triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC Sherald also received a 2019 Smithsonian Ingenuity Award.

Obama’s 2008 election shares the same sense of historical significance with the portraits, painted 10 years later, Young curator Timothy Burgard said, both in the choice of portrait painters and the portraits themselves. .

Black artists had never been chosen, perhaps never even considered, to paint such important portraits. Wiley and Sherald reimagined the centuries-old tradition of portraying political leaders and for the first time brought the black community into the conversation.

“I grew up in South Central Los Angeles going to the Los Angeles Museum,” Wiley said, “there weren’t too many people who looked like me on those walls. So over the years and as i try to create my own kind of work it’s about correcting some of that trying to find places where people who look like me feel accepted or have the ability to express their state of grace on the grand narrative scale of the museum space.

In a statement on his Obama portrait, Wiley said, “It’s our humanity, it’s our ability to say: I matter. I was here. The ability to be the first African American painter to paint the first African American President of the United States is absolutely overwhelming.

Both paintings are a stark contrast to the formality of earlier presidential portraits and paintings of first ladies. Over the decades of presidential portraits, most presidents have been painted against brown backgrounds, sitting at desks or standing with an air of detachment.

Obama is painted with a vibrancy that immediately stands out. Although he’s perched on the edge of his seat, as if ready to get back to work, there’s also a casualness to the pose. He is wearing a suit, but no tie, and the top two buttons of his shirt are open.

The plants that seem to threaten to overwhelm it are symbolic, says Burgard. They represent both his public life and his private life, both open and hidden. The flowers are also symbolic: the chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, her adopted city; jasmine, which pays homage to its hometown, Hawaii; purple African lilies, from Kenya, his father’s country of origin; and roses, which represent Washington, DC

The flowers also represent the full bloom of his presidency and accomplishments, as well as a number of buds that speak of hope.

“Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama” by Amy Sherald, oil on linen, 2018 (Courtesy Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery) Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama, also seated, conjures up images found in religious iconography, including that of the Madonna, Burgard says. Her dress, chosen by the artist, is by designer Milly Michelle Smith, and has the modernist traditions of abstract art and the traditional patterned quilts of the Gee’s Bend community in Alabama.

Although her image is ethereal, the robe anchors her and flows outward as if to envelop and envelope humanity.

Sherald employs a technique that tends to de-emphasize race by painting in monochromatic gray tones that divert attention from racial preconceptions and prejudices to highlight the inner life of individuals.

Both artists worked closely with the Obamas and used photographs to plan their compositions. Another thing that sets Obama portraits apart from other presidential and first lady portraits is the different sizes and poses. Other presidential and first lady portraits have been of the same style and have them either looking at each other or the wife posed to look towards her husband.

The Obamas’ portraits are framed differently, with a more traditional frame for Obama and a sleek, modern frame for Michelle. Obama is also slightly larger than life, while Michelle is slightly shorter, but not diminished.

At a press conference before the opening, Burgard also pointed to other symbols in the paintings:

  • The painting was unveiled, at Obama’s request, on February 12, the birth date of Abraham Lincoln and Obama’s personal hero and role model.
  • The chair Obama sits in is 19th-century neoclassical, reminiscent of the chair and pose that artist George Peter Alexander Healy used in his portrait of Lincoln.
  • Obama wears both his wedding ring and his watch, which serves as a poetic symbol for the passage of time and Obama’s plea for change, saying, “Change will not come if we wait for someone else or another moment.
  • Michelle Obama’s mouth is slightly open, suggesting she is about to speak.
  • The design of her dress suggests a heart shape at its center, reflecting the First Lady’s dedication to a number of public causes and concerns.
  • Burgard also revealed that there is a secret message on Obama’s painting that no one but museum staff can see. In such paintings, foam board is used for additional protection, but a hole is cut in the board so that the artist’s signature can be easily read. Wiley added a message under his signature: “The greatest president in history.”

The portraits were commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery and funded by private donations. The Portrait Gallery, which has official portraits of all US presidents beginning with George Washington, began commissioning presidential portraits in 1994, beginning with George HW Bush. The first lady’s inaugural portrait was that of Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2006.

The idea of ​​putting the Obama portraits on tour was prompted both by the popularity of the paintings and by COVID, which kept visitors out of the gallery for months. Officials said they wanted to bring the artwork to people who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to see it.


When: June 18-August. 14

Where: De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drove, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

Hours: 9.30 a.m. to 5.15 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday

Health and security: No proof of vaccination or mask is required, but masks are highly recommended

Tickets: Admission included in museum admission price, $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $6 for students, and free for children 17 and under; admission is free on Saturdays; visitors are advised to purchase tickets online in advance;

Associated programs and events

Opening ceremony : 12 p.m.-3 p.m.; features live music from cellist and vocalist Mia Pixley, accompanied by dance performances from Kimberly Olivier, and a free portrait session with First Exposures alumni.

Power and creativity in the portrait with the first exhibitions: 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. on June 25; First Exposures is a nationally recognized youth photography mentorship program in the Bay Area, visitors can tour the 28-year retrospective of portrait-focused youth work and participate in a pop-up portrait studio inspired by former Obama Portraits with First Exposures.

Art, Fashion, Activism with Youth Art Exchange: 11am-4pm, July 30; inspired by the themes of the Obama Portraits Tour, visitors are invited to an exclusive art and fashion viewing featuring the students and teaching artists of the Youth Art Exchange. Youth Art Exchange fosters shared creative practice between professional artists and public high school students

Poetry and Storytelling with 826 Valencia and Oakland Poet Laureate: 11am-4pm Aug 6; hear poems written by Bay Area youth in response to Obama portraits and works from the museum’s permanent collection; includes an appearance by Oakland Poet Laureate Dr. Ayodele Nzinga; a zine-making workshop and poetry day will be led by 826 Valencia, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting disadvantaged students aged 6-18 with their creative and explanatory writing skills, and helping teachers to inspire their students to write.


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