The Baltimore artist Amy Sherald is undergoing her first major public test, with the unveiling Monday of the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama in a ceremony at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
Normally, presidential portraits don’t generate tons of buzz. But last year, when it was announced that the New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley had been chosen to portray Barack Obama and that rising star Sherald, 44, would paint the first lady, the news generated headlines and excited speculation nationwide. Not only are both African-American, but both are contemporary artists whose work likely will depart from the realistic presidential portraits that dominate the collection.
Below are a few quick facts about Sherald and her background to help bring you up to speed.
How were Wiley and Sherald chosen to paint the Obamas? The Obamas selected the artists after examining almost two dozen portfolios.
Haven’t I heard Amy Sherald’s name before? Sherald first became known to the nation’s art critics in the fall of 2016 when her portfolio beat 2,500 other entries to win the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.
However, Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama is likely to be her introduction to a general art audience.
What’s her story? Sherald’s career came perilously close to being derailed twice. In 2004, she stopped painting for three years while helping care for ill family members in her native Georgia. In 2012, at age 39 she collapsed on a pharmacy floor and subsequently had a heart transplant. It took her about a year to build up her strength enough to allow her to resume painting.
Are Sherald and Wiley the first two African-American artists to receive this prestigious honor? No, but there haven’t been many. Simmie Knox, who painted the official White House portrait of Bill and Hillary Clinton, was the first African-American artist to receive a presidential portrait commission.
What will the pundits be talking about? Sherald paints life-sized portraits of African-Americans, but she paints them all with gray skin. She has said it’s “A way for me to subversively comment about race without feeling as though I’m excluding the viewer.” If Michelle Obama’s portrait also has gray skin, art critics are likely to focus on that aspect of the painting.
What about Kehinde Wiley? He’s known for portraying African-American men wearing contemporary clothes and posing in the heroic stance of Old Masters artworks.
How can I see the paintings for myself? The portraits should be in place starting Tuesday at the National Portrait Gallery at 8th St NW and F St NW in Washington. Wiley’s painting will be permanently installed in the Portrait Gallery’s “America’s Presidents” exhibition. Sherald’s painting will be on view in the museum’s “Recent Acquisitions” show through early November. Public hours are 11:30 a.m.–7 p.m. daily.
What else should I look for? The Obama portraits are painted by different artists and will hang in separate galleries. But ideally, the paintings will work together. The inevitable stylistic differences will harmonize with rather than compete with one another — just as their real-life counterparts do.