Your School. Your Paper. Since 1936.

The Suffolk Journal

Your School. Your Paper. Since 1936.

The Suffolk Journal

Your School. Your Paper. Since 1936.

The Suffolk Journal

The end of a presidential tour: Obama portraits on display at MFA

Barack+Obama%2C+2018.+Oil+on+canvas+by+Kehinde+Wiley+%0A
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The Nat ional Portrait Gallery is grateful to the following lead donors for their support of the Obama portraits: Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg; Judith Kern and Kent Whealy; Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia; Clarence, DeLoise and Brenda Gaines; The Ston eridge Fund of Amy and Marc Meadows; Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker; and Catherine and Michael Podell. The National Portrait Gallery is grateful to all of the generous donors who made these commissions possible and proudly recognizes them at npg.si.edu/obamaportraitstour Image Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
‘Barack Obama,’ 2018. Oil on canvas by Kehinde Wiley

The stark blueish purple walls meet the eyes of patrons at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts as they enter the large gallery, finally being in the same room as the Barack and Michelle Obama portraits that have been traveling around the country since 2021. 

The portraits honoring the first African American president and first lady were painted by African American artists. This is the first time in United States history that Black artists have been selected for the job of painting the presidential portraits.

Kehinde Wiley, who painted the portrait of former president Obama, was born in 1977 and is most well known for painting very large portraits of Black figures in the same light as their historical white counterparts. His paintings are painted with extreme realism and detail. Upon first glance, I was convinced that the painting of Barack was actually a graphic design. The painting is so refined and the brushstrokes were essentially invisible making it seem like he is sitting right in front of all of the viewers.

Wiley also did not stay true to his usual theme of recreating historical paintings. He instead  painted the president in front of a wall of greenery with some flowers intermixed that have meanings to the president. Some of the flowers have connections to the president’s life with the official flower of Chicago, jasmine to represent where he spent his childhood, and African blue lilies to represent his late father from Kenya.

Amy Sherald, the artist who painted the portrait of the first lady, was born in 1973 and paints in an original way of using “grisaille,” which is a type of painting that depicts skin tones through a greyscale. She uses this method to mimic and represent the same tones that are seen in 19th century photographs of African Americans in a way of calling back to history. Along with the greyscale for her skin tone, Sherald also used a stark pastel blue background to keep the contrast high in the larger-than-life portrait; however, she did decide to keep the first lady’s dress’s true colors in the painting. 

These paintings are quite different and have extreme differences when it comes to style. Standing in front of these, they are almost intimidating to be in front of and it makes every visitor take a moment to take in the size and beauty of each portrait. 

‘Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,’ 2018. Oil on linen by Amy Sherald (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The Nat ional Portrait Gallery is grateful to the following lead donors for their support of the Obama portraits: Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg; Judith Kern and Kent Whealy; Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia; Clarence, DeLoise and Brenda Gaines; The Ston eridge Fund of Amy and Marc Meadows; Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker; and Catherine and Michael Podell. The National Portrait Gallery is grateful to all of the generous donors who made these commissions possible and proudly recognizes them at npg.si.edu/obamaportraitstour Image Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

With these paintings being quite popular  and impactful, directly adjacent to the exhibit there is “Portraits of Leadership” exhibit. It features a hallway full of small portraits drawn by students aged elementary all the way through highschool who drew their “inspirations.” All of the kids drew their idols ranging from people in their lives to large political and historical figures. There were parents and teachers along with figures like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Martin Luther King Jr.

No matter who the person is or their background, they can impact a young person’s life. After the Obama presidency young people have had more opportunities and been exposed to a more diverse pool of leaders for young people to look up to, which is what makes this exhibit so important. 

Being able to see this exhibit while in Boston is a surreal experience that if given the opportunity to visit I believe every person should go and see. The Obama Portraits exhibit is now on view at the MFA until Oct. 30th.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
About the Contributor
Keely Menyhart, Arts & Entertainment Editor | she/her

Keely is a junior from Merritt Island, Florida. She is majoring in journalism with a print/web concentration and a minor in advertising. When she is not writing for the Journal, you can find her walking through museums, listening to music or rewatching her favorite shows. You can also find her exploring record stores and obsessing over new music. Keely plans on continuing her work from the Journal after graduating by covering music and entertainment for news publications.

Comments (0)

All The Suffolk Journal Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Activate Search
The end of a presidential tour: Obama portraits on display at MFA