Arts, Off Campus

The Obama Portraits Arrive at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

Former President Barack Obama, the first Black U.S. president, and former first lady Michelle Obama’s time in the White House was historic. It is only fitting that the Obamas’ official portraits are just as groundbreaking. 

Immediately when visitors enter the gallery, they can read an overview of the portraits and the artists who created them: Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley. Wiley and Sherald are the first African American artists to create the official portraits of a president and first lady since the founding of the National Portrait Gallery in 1962.

In the Lois B. and Michael K. Torf Gallery of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), the historic portraits of the Obamas now hang on the walls, marking their final stop on a national tour. The paintings are on display at the MFA until Oct. 30 before heading back to the National Portrait Gallery. 

The first president to appear in the National Portrait Gallery was George H. W. Bush, and Hillary Clinton the inaugural first lady to appear. 

The exhibit highlights the composition of both portraits and the artists who created them. Hanging beside Michelle Obama’s portrait is a biography of Sherald describing the artist’s roots in Columbus, Ga. and New York City. Sherald specializes in portraiture and is inspired by old photographs of Black Americans, according to the sign accompanying the portrait. 

Sherald employs a technique called grisaille for the skin color of her subjects—a nod to the limited representation of Black Americans in portraits—paired with a monochrome background. 

In the oil painting, Michelle Obama is seated against a blue background in a geometric-patterned dress, her head resting on her hand and her eyes stoically looking out at her audience. According to the sign, the artist painted Michelle Obama to highlight her “knowing look.”

Wiley’s painting of former President Barack Obama hangs beside the striking, seated figure of Michelle Obama. A New York–based artist who specializes in portraiture, Wiley frequently places people of color in front of “lively, luscious backgrounds,” according to the museum’s description of the artist. 

Drawing inspiration from artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, and Titian, Wiley often adds a sense of aging or antiqueness to his portraits of modern people. But his portrait of Barack Obama does not do this, revealing that the former president is not imitating any kind of history—instead, as the sign says, he’s making history. 

The oil-on-canvas painting features the former president seated in a carved wooden chair, leaning forward as if to have a conversation with the viewer. He is dressed relatively casually, and the flowers behind him represent Chicago, Kenya, Indonesia, and Hawaii—all places of personal significance for the president, according to the painting’s description. 

Obama’s portrait gives the impression that he is ready to listen to anyone who stands before him, according to the description.

The Obama Portraits exhibit concludes in a hallway labeled “Portraits of Leadership,” concluding with a fitting tribute to all of the leaders—big and small—who make a difference in people’s lives every day.

 The MFA asked people to submit sketches or photographs of someone in answer to the question, “Who is a leader to you?” The portraits cover a whole hallway, and visitors can immerse themselves in these images of everyday and well-known heroes.

October 2, 2022