Baltimore Insider

Michelle Obama portrait by Amy Sherald: The critics respond

The official portrait of Michelle Obama, painted by Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday morning, and became a national event, with everyday tweeters, art enthusiasts and art critics sounding off.

While some critics complimented Sherald’s signature style, which included her trademark “grayscale,” others thought Obama’s floor-length dress, which was reminiscent of the quilts made by a black community in Alabama, was distracting, or worse — that the former first lady’s portrait looked nothing like her.


Here’s a roundup of some of the art experts’ reactions:

Philip Kennicott, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for The Washington Post, wrote that “The first lady inhabits a world of calm, clarity and Wedgwood-hued enlightenment.” While others didn’t see the resemblance between Obama and her portrait, Kennicott told CNN that he saw it and the powerful message it conveyed:


“The simple fact of her portrait hanging with those of other first ladies is a cultural and emotional milestone. … That she chose Sherald as an artist is also significant. Sherald has a significant career, but has only in her 40s emerged on the national stage. Established artists don't need commissions; Mrs. Obama's selection of Sherald, however, will have a major impact on her career right when she needs it.”

Kennicott also stated that the art world “never agrees on much of anything,” and that portraiture is “considered to be a bit of an old-fashioned backwater in the larger art world, so there will be people who sniff at the whole idea of making a traditional likeness of an important woman.… But I think there will be considerable acclaim for this work, too, because Sherald managed to stay true to her own stylistic inclinations while producing a serviceable formal image. And my guess is that Mrs. Obama is a beloved figure throughout much of the art world, and Sherald's painting will benefit from that sentiment.”

Holland Cotter, co-chief art critic of The New York Times, said Obama’s dress, designed by Michelle Smith, stole the show, but the portrait, overall, left her wanting:

“The shape of the dress, rising pyramidally upward, mountain-like, feels as if it were the real subject of the portrait. Mrs. Obama’s face forms the composition’s peak, but could be almost anyone’s face, like a model’s face in a fashion spread. To be honest, I was anticipating — hoping for — a bolder, more incisive image of the strong-voiced person I imagine this former first lady to be.”

Art critic Jerry Saltz wrote in Vulture that the portrait depicted Obama as an “everyday queen of heaven:”

“She is grand, elegant, gorgeous, but her jackrabbit-quick wit is right there. Set against a monochrome flat powder-blue, the First Lady is a guide star to another kind of glamour, a serious spirit whose sorrows were released, who spread warmth, respect, a sly sense of humor, and protectiveness. And a different idea of female power and beauty.”

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Vox staff writer Constance Grady called the Obama’s portraits “direct, vital, and above all, cool:”

“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. It’s not a cheesecake pose, but it’s embodied and physical in a way that’s unusual for this kind of portrait; you get why her husband thanked Sherald for capturing Michelle Obama’s grace, beauty, intelligence, and charm — and also her hotness.”


Philly Inquirer columnist Elizabeth Wellington said the portrait somehow missed the mark:

“I wasn’t sure what to make of Baltimore artist Amy Sherald‘s Michelle Obama, either. … Where is the definition in her arms? Where is her 100-watt smile? The hair is almost right. But quite frankly, she looks more like Kerry Washington than Mrs. O. … While the portrait was spot on in capturing her elegance, the gravitas of Michelle Obama was somewhat lost.”

But Wellington emphasized, our opinions on the piece don’t really matter:

“These portraits — the first ever to be commissioned by African American artists for the National Portrait Gallery — aren’t about me and how I want to remember the Obamas. Nor are they about you, or how you want to see them. They are the final piece of a legacy marked by breaking the mold. They are innovative. They are a shout-out to the Obamas’ beautifully unconventional way of bending the rules.”

Despite the critics, Michelle Obama’s biggest fan, her husband, former president Barack Obama, had nothing but admiration for the portrait. He thanked Sherald “for so spectacularly capturing the grace, beauty, intelligence, charm and hotness of the woman I love.”