The story behind Michelle Obama's Milly portrait gown

Katrina Barker
February 14, 2018

While Barack Obama's portrait - the former president seated in a chair surrounded by flowers and leaves- was intriguing, it was the depiction of former first lady Michelle Obama that stole the show - primarily because some corners of the Internet (including me) didn't think the portrait looked much like Mrs. Obama.

The unveiling of the Obamas' official portraits this week rightfully has generated the criticism this racist couple richly deserves ("Official Obama portraits unveiled at National Portrait Gallery", Web, Feb. 12). The former president praised the artist's efforts and acknowledged the significance that art has on American culture.

Other people chose to poke fun of the lush background of the portrait.

"Very quickly we arrived at the notion: As opposed to creating a type of echo of historical precedence, we should try to clear the table", Wiley says, and "start at ground level to create something that hasn't been seen before". But within the portrait are little clues - chrysanthemums represent Chicago, as that's the official flower of his hometown; jasmine, Hawaii, his birthplace; and African blue lilies, his Kenyan heritage. "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. Although Sherald selected a more subdued palette for her painting, her subject appears no less regal.

The artists, chosen by the Obamas, have combined traditional representation with elements that underscore the complexity of their subjects, and the historic fact of their political rise.

The president's portrait will have a permanent home in the Portrait Gallery's recently renovated "America's Presidents" exhibition and Mrs. Obama's will be on view in the recent acquisitions section of the museum through November 2018.

"We miss the way those who worked with us on this incredible journey carried yourselves and worked so hard to make this country a better place", he said. "And so she sits symbolically in the world in the same way I want my images to sit". "There has got to be something about them that only I can see", she told The New York Times.

Amy Sherald took a different approach to Michelle Obama's portrait.

Ostensibly, the artist is saying that his piece is intended as a reflection on black rage - not as an exhortation for African-American women to decapitate as many white devils as they can.

While some critics complimented Sherald's signature style, which included her trademark "grayscale", others thought Obama's floor-length dress, which was reminiscent of the quilts made by a black community in Alabama, was distracting, or worse - that the former first lady's portrait looked nothing like her.

"She's known for a lot of things and one of them is fashion, so I knew that was important", Sherald says. "But most of all, I am so incredibly grateful to all the people who came before me in this journey".

In 2009, Michael Jackson commissioned a portrait, which wasn't painted until after the king of pop passed.

Other reports by AllAboutTopnews

Discuss This Article