Michelle Obama portrait by Amy Sherald: The critics respond

Getty Image

Getty Image

Also unveiled Monday was a portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama by artist Amy Sherald, who is based in Baltimore. Mrs. Obama offered an apology to the other artists who had to go to the Oval Office and "get grilled by the President and the First Lady", going on to explain that she and Sherald shared a "sister girl" connection that made the decision to work with her simple.

One thing was immediately clear: Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald's artworks would be unlike any presidential and first lady portraits that came before. Wiley, who painted the president's portrait, is known for depicting young black men in poses mimicking those from more famous works of art. Her skin is painted grey, a signature style by Sherald, who does it in order to take away the assigned color of her subjects.

"I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde's artistic integrity would not allow (him) to do what I asked". Smith added: "It's up to Mrs. Obama to say why she chose this for the portrait, but I would say that it's a very modern, emotional dress with a very womanly, very American spirit".

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Ben Shapiro, of the Daily Wire, was even more pointed in his criticism-captioning a piece of abstract art with, "LOVE the new portrait of Michelle Obama".

In his portrait, Barack Obama is seated among a sea of chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago - his hometown.

Michelle Obama said she "was a little overwhelmed, to say the least", after seeing her portrait. "I'm also thinking of all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who ... will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution", she said. "She turned to me and said, 'I really hope that you and I can work together.' " That's when "Barack kind of faded into the woodwork", she recounted, and she and Sherald quickly bonded with "that kind of sista-girl connection" and trust a successful portrait requires.

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President Obama's portrait is a break from tradition. These are not your mama's portraits, in other words.

"Liberal sheep think I should run wild with @nytimes anonymous sources and not confirm myself", he said last month. President Obama is set against a riot of greenery that, according to the artist, charts "his path on Earth through those plants". In the past, Sherald has chosen her subjects for their ineffable "quality of existing in the past, present, and future simultaneously", her gallerist Monique Meloche has said; it is true that, before one of Sherald's figures, you think not about the passage of time or the oppressive reach of the state. The dress forms a pyramid, with the face atop, in a way that suggests a protective carapace, hiding from view the first lady's body and some of her femininity, which were targets of racist attack during her tenure in the East Wing.

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