Ruminations On Obama Portraits


The Obamas unveiled their portraits today.

It's a fun moment, when the nation is talking about 2 paintings. And, as a painter, I find it an exciting moment! I ruminated a bit on Twitter about this; this essay is a digestion and extension of that thought process.

Back when it was announced who the Obamas had selected for their portrait artists, I looked through the prior work of both, and I really didn't like Wiley's work. President Obama's portrait is fully in line with Wiley's body of work, and I don't really care for it; that is, the body of work.


Let's analyze the painting and then refocus on the body of work.


The backgrounds in Wiley paintings are frequently a decorative pattern, with the foreground a figure, maybe two. What happens then is the background is fighting the foreground visually, and it's a weaker artistic device than having the contents directly symbolize the narrative. And unfortunately, this painting hews tightly to form. The flowers relating to different parts of Obama's past are a great touch. But the leaves are just sort of awful and in the way, not managing the composition at all. The background should, ideally, flow through and set the foreground, like a ring around a jewel. At best, the leaves might be a knock off from the Chicaco Cubs stadium and thus a homage to Obama's hometown.

Mind, some other Presidents have had some less than perfect backgrounds too. E.g., John Quincy Adams just rises from darkness and stares wearily out into space. Some other Presidents just have a tan tone. FDR's portrait has a number of sketches on it with his hands doing things for some reason. And the vast majority of presidential portraits are sort of a bland stuffed shirtness.


Obama himself in the painting has a warm vigor and intensity to him that is pleasant. That is true to Wiley's work. It's absolutely lovely, with great tones. Wiley tends to render brown people with this golden red shade, almost glowing, and President Obama keeps that glow. He looks like an intense man.

Posing, the forward intense look is an interesting choice; much better than standing with chest puffed out in the 18thc & 19thc styles. And this has the Obama suit with no tie. GW Bush went for that, but he just looked straight up relaxed, at home on a couch. Relatable, but perhaps not perfectly honoring the dignity of the Presidency. Obama's oriented towards the viewer, engaged, focused, intense. Glowing with focus. I like that.

His hands are a hair too large, I think. I'm not sure if that's intended to symbolize generosity, power, or just a slap in the face to 45 (pick one or all, I'm good). Or if I'm mis-seeing it and it's correctly rendered. Another commentator suggested that Obama's face was distorted, likely due to overuse of photographs. Personally, that's irrelevant - that's a style question. But it's sort of a huh. As a painter, altering the subject's anatomy slightly is a time-honored tradition.

Lincoln and GW Bush are the only other two presidents that are fully seated with the chair brought into the viewer's eye. Kennedy's might have been, but I think his portrait went unfinished and all we have is a study. So that's an interesting choice.

That the painting is large, larger than life as I understand it, is also a very nice subtle touch.

So I generally disagree with the composition, but not the figurative element, and the use of color is wonderful.

Now, the truth is, I don't like Wiley's work. I think the decorative backgrounds are all kind of awful, and Wiley can't seem to regularly break out of this cookie cutter genre of "brown people in front of decorative elements". A major of his schtick is to take Old Master poses, or settings, and redo them into a brown person in front of a decorative element. Sometimes it's just flat funny and awesome. But he's been doing this 20 years now. The body of work is just wearisome and same-feeling after you go through a few years of it.

More recent work is oriented on settings; remaking an Old Master setting with a brown person highlighted. And, mind you, that can look very nice.

For a recent show/series, I quote from his website: "Wiley begins by photographing his subjects in the mirrored pose of a specific historical painting. These are ordinary men wearing their own clothing and, as with previous works, each one is valorised with the same significance as their paired historical source".

You might want to call this subversive or other similar words - but I judge it to be sort of lazy if that's all one does, and it seems that it is the signature of Wiley. And that's my broad judgement of Wiley's artistic urge: it runs on a few narrow channels, and doesn't broaden out.

I do want to distinctly point out that Wiley's work relies on a studio of helpers and that is totally within the grand traditions of painting. It's a little strange vs the Romantic notions of "lone artist in his studio flat" ala van Gogh, but it was totally normal for old-timey professional artists. It is a little strange to do a "show" under your own name, with a studio of helpers backing you, however. And, too, the lack of transparency into his studio is a tad worrisome. How much is actually Wiley vs Wiley sketching some things and handing to an assistant? At some point the touch of the master does matter. But it's not something that is relevant for the old fashioned Portrait Of Poobah.

So Wiley - popular, well thought of, but ultimately, if one dislikes his work, one will dislike President Obama's portrait - and like as not, vice versa, being as it's so much inline with the Wiley oeuvre.

It should be pointed out as well: The Obamas are art consumers- they select art, they hang it, they are sophisticated and aware artist collectors. They chose these painters, for good reasons of their own. And while I, myself, judge Wiley to be overhyped and eh, the Obamas knew exactly what they were doing. One major aspect of Wiley's work, and almost certainly a major part of why President Obama chose him, was that he sets Black people as peers of White, in a very intentional and subversive way.

I think it could be done in a more knowing and sophisticated way - Wiley came up with his trick for that long ago and certainly could redo it. But, in a very real sense, Obama choosing Wiley is makes a political point. "You were putting street people as models in portraits subverting European royalty; now you are putting a POTUS in that place... as himself - without subversion." In a sense, Obama subverts the entire subversive trope and, considering the body of work, it sort of rings tinny. If your art system is dedicated to an subversion of the authentic, how do you embrace the authentic when it is presented? As someone pointed out elsewhere, you really shouldn't need metadata to get the message of a painting - although most modern art tends to run along that line anyway. But again - Obama's a smart and knowledgable guy, and I expect he's satisfied.

As a side note, Michelle Obama's picture is surreal and I want to unpack it a lot more. She's no longer a person of color, her dress has color, she herself is grey. And I guarantee you, there's intention there. Painters think about their choices for colors. And Sherald usually has more color in her subjects. Amusingly, Sherald put Mrs Obama's arms literally front and center (you remember the howls of complaint from conservatives about her arms, not being perfectly what they wanted, yes?).

So... my general summary of President Obama's portrait is 7/10. The composition is problematic (but in standard Wiley ways); the rendering is excellent, the color work and posing is enthralling, and I want to see it live.

President Obama's portrait & a writeup

Michelle Obama's artist

You can look at Wiley's body of work

And more, showing Wiley breaking out of decorative backgrounds, but keeping the Old Master copy element

An interview/ridealong GQ did with him

Other Presidential portraits here

P.S. I want to throw all the shade at Clinton's portrait, because it looks like it just got run through Deepdream and the maker went home after that. Even Kennedy's half done sketch is better than that. It just looks terrible.

P.P.S revised version 2 of this essay, fixing composition issues (ha) and a few typos