Review: Presidential Portraits


Local middle schooler Abby Gonzalez who attends Beaver Country Day, puts her own spin on the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama done by Kehinde Wiley and and Amy Sherald, respectively.

Ella Kitterman, Co- Editor in Chief

Former President Barack Obama’s presidency was full of firsts. He was the first Black President of the United States. The first to legalize gay marriage during his term. The first to refuse campaign finance from the government. He took our country in a different direction and his final statement as he left the white house was no different.

The Obama’s presidential portraits strayed far from the common trend the realistic, regal and monochromatic portraits that have been the tradition ever since Washington first took the role in 1789. Both painters Kehinde Wiley, who painted Barack Obama and Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama, incorporated the modern and playful yet historic tone that filled the white house under Obama’s presidency.

The Obamas chose the painters with careful deliberation. Both up-and-coming Black artists known for their distinct and unconventional styles and the Obamas certainly made a statement through their choice in artist. Visual arts teacher Donna Sartanowicz added her expertise by first acknowledging the significance in the choice of artists.

“The choosing of these two artists is such a wonderful and much needed break from the kids of artist that have gotten this gig in the past,” Sartanowicz said. “And I think that is a reflection of the fact that President

Middle schooler Abby Gonzalez who attends Beaver Country Day School imitates the official portrait of Barack Obama done by Kehinde Wiley

 and Ms. Obama were such a different thing than the presidents that were in the past; both of them have respect for tradition and for the office but they are very firmly rooted in the contemporary world.”  

In Michelle Obama’s painting she sits in a very elegant position, one you would expect from a past presidential portrait. What differs though is the details of her clothes and face. Unlike what one might expect, she is not painted as if based on a photo, but rather it is clear that this is a piece of art. Her dress is full of abstract images: different colors and shapes creating a pattern one cannot follow. Barack Obama too holds a presidential stance, sitting pensively on a chair wearing a dark suit, and is drawn much more realistically than Michelle. What makes his painting stand out though is the background.  He is surrounded and almost taken in, by a hedge of flowers, mostly roses. According to the Smithsonian website, the additional flowers represent different things: the purple African lily his father and African heritage, the white jasmine his birthplace, Hawaii, and chrisanthomon that is many colors, signifies Chicago where he grew up and was a state senator.

According to Sartanowicz the style choice marks a shift for a period of our nation’s history.

“Art is and should be a reflection of what is going on in the world now,” Sartanowicz said.  “If you go to the National Portrait Gallery and look, there’s going to be this big huge break visually, and I think that this is a point where you are going to visually be able to read that there was a change that happe

Middle schooler Abby Gonzalez replicates the official portrait of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald.


These paintings do a fantastic job of representing the Obama administration.  The painters are able to balance the respect the Obamas had for tradition, while acknowledging the modern path they forged themselves and the strong and sometimes down to earth character they brought as leaders.  Beyond anything, they will certainly stand out on the National Portrait Gallery, just as they will in history.