Michelle Obama portrait by Baltimore artist Amy Sherald makes national splash

Michelle Obama, as envisaged by the Baltimore artist Amy Sherald, has gray skin.

That’s one of the characteristics of the portrait unveiled Monday in Washington’s National Portrait Gallery that has everyone talking.

Specifically, the former first lady is rendered in Sherald’s trademark “grayscale” — a light charcoal with taupe undertones — that doesn’t so much erase her subject’s race as declare its irrelevance. And both the former president and his wife couldn’t be more thrilled.

Obama is depicted seated, her hair loose around her shoulders, her chin resting on one hand. The mood is contemplative and serene. She wears a floor-length white gown with an abstract pattern reminiscent of paintings by Piet Mondrian, as well as of quilts made by a community of black artists in Gee’s Bend, Ala.

After the portrait was unveiled,former President Barack Obama thanked Sherald “for so spectacularly capturing the grace, beauty, intelligence, charm and hotness of the woman I love.” For her part, Michelle Obama said she was “humbled” and “overwhelmed.”

Sherald’s painting, along with a portrait of the former president created by the New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley, was revealed at a presentation attended by both artists, the Obamas, and celebrity guests including Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Gayle King and former Vice President Joseph Biden.

“I paint American people, and I tell American stories through the paintings I create,” Sherald said. “Once my paintings are complete, the models no longer live in the paintings as themselves. I see something bigger in them, something more symbolic, an archetype. I paint things I want to see. I paint as a way of looking for myself in the world.”

Normally, the presentation of presidential portraits don’t generate much buzz. But, when it was announced last fall that the two fortysomething artists had been selected to commemorate the Obamas, the news was covered nationwide.

Partly, that’s because it seemed fitting that black artists would depict the nation’s first black president and first lady. What’s more, the Obamas’ choice was artistically bold. Sherald, 44, and Wiley, 40, are contemporary artists with distinct — and surprisingly complementary — styles seemingly designed to confound those who expected the Obamas’ portraits to display the photographic realism that characterizes much of the rest of the presidential collection.

As is true of most of Sherald’s work, the former first lady is depicted life-size and looks directly at the viewer. Her gaze is level, her expression deadpan, her mouth relaxed but unsmiling.

Sherald has talked of finding inspiration in early 19th and 20th century photos of African-Americans printed on black-and-white film.

“My portraits definitely connect to those photographs,” she said.

But in other ways, this work represents a departure for Sherald. In other portraits she’s created, the colors pop and fizz, an effect not unlike champagne. In the artwork temporarily named “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,” the colors are muted: The silvery white of the dress is backed by a soft, Colonial blue background. The colors underscore her subject’s dignity.

Sherald spent two 90-minute sessions photographing the former first lady in natural light, and then used the photographs to inspire the portrait. She was struck, she said, by how strongly the Michelle Obama in the photographs resembles the couple’s 19-year-old daughter, Malia.

National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet said Portrait Gallery officials and the Obamas saw photographs of the works in progress. But neither the couple nor the curators requested any changes.

Michelle Obama told the crowd that when she and her husband interviewed Sherald in the Oval Office during the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, she felt an instant “sista-girl” connection with the artist.

“I was intrigued before she walked into the room,” she said. “I had seen the work and was blown away by the boldness of her colors and the uniqueness of her subject matter. And then she walked in, and she was so fly and poised. She was hip and cool in a way that was expected but also that was completely unexpected.”

When the covering was pulled off Sherald’s portrait, the crowd murmured with delight. A few minutes later, when Wiley’s depiction of Barack Obama was unwrapped, the audience audibly gasped.

The former president is seated and surrounded by a field of verdant green foliage. Emerging from the leaves are flowers symbolic of his life, from blue Kenyan irises to Hawaiian jasmine to chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, where his political career was launched.

The former president is wearing a suit without a tie. Unlike Wiley’s other portraits, which are modeled on Old Masters artworks, Barack Obama isn’t mounted on a horse, wearing a crown or brandishing a sword.

Obama joked that Wiley’s artistic integrity wouldn’t allow him to accede to the president’s request to make his ears smaller or his hair less gray.

“Maybe the one area where there were some concessions is that Kehinde didn’t put me in this situation with partridges and scepters and thrones,” Barack Obama said. “I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without him making me look like Napoleon.”

Some people who followed the unveiling on social media tweeted their disappointment that the portrait doesn’t more closely resemble the former first lady.

Michelle Obama said that “people know what they think about us and how they see us.” She compared Sherald’s task to “cooking Thanksgiving dinner for strangers. Everyone has an idea of what Thanksgiving dinner is supposed to taste like.”

Sherald shrugged off the criticism, saying she she knew that every artistic choice she made when depicting a figure as famous as Michelle Obama would be scrutinized.

“If I’d had her rest her chin on her fist, people would have said that I’d painted her giving the Black Power salute,” Sherald said.

Regardless of what some detractors think, Sherald already has at least one influential fan.

“Amy Sherald is a woman of extraordinary talent, and I am thrilled to see her getting the recognition she deserves,” Michelle Obama said. “She is well on her way to distinguishing herself as one of the great artists of her generation.”

mmccauley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mcmccauley

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