Where the Newly Unveiled Obama Portraits Fit in the History of (Black) Portraiture
An art historian explains how portraits can convey so much more than mere likeness.
by Rachelle Hampton via Slate on February 12, 2018
How do you think these portraits fit into the larger genre of black portraiture?
Black people have a slightly different relationship with portraiture [than other groups] because we didn’t have [representations] in the past great black generals and celebrities. This is a fairly new phenomenon of the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. So on one hand these portraits, being in the portrait gallery, being of a president and a first lady, fulfill that [classic historical function]. But in terms of black people I think that these are two works that are very much preoccupied with a notion of style and given that Barack Obama and Michelle Obama were paragons of style when they first came onto the scene and probably still represent that, these works really do provide a continuum of that interest in the black body as evocative, as making a statement that perhaps goes beyond a realism and goes into a certain ethos of pride, of cool, of struggle, of all sorts of issues that really do exemplify the experience.
How do you think these portraits fit into the larger genre of presidential portraiture?
Totally different, they don’t look like anything you would see in the National Portrait Gallery. There was a moment, I think, in the ’60s where a few artists did some wild pictures of Jackie Kennedy and also of JFK, but that was a wild moment anyway. By and large the tradition is pretty conservative, and the portraits are mostly done by official portrait painters. These just stick out in a delightful way.