Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics and is a theater critic for The Times of London. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral degree between Yale University and University College London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
The National Portrait Gallery today unveiled its official portrait of President Barack Obama, alongside that of former First Lady Michelle Obama. But which Obama is on view in this painting?
In 2010, the Economist magazine’s editors chose to title a review of Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars” book “The Loneliness of President Obama.” To some of Obama’s fans, it seemed a misnomer. Remember “Yes We Can?” On the campaign trail – twice – Obama was the ultimate communicator, seemingly happiest in a crowd.
In office, however, he seemed distant by comparison. Indeed, in a widely-read 2012 essay for The Atlantic, the columnist James Fallows popularized Walter Mondale’s view of Obama’s seemingly unfair reputation as “aloof and diffident.” (The magazine would later mock this media stereotype of the President under the title “A Brief History of President Obama Not Having Any Friends.”)
Elected with the highest ever number of votes cast for a US President, Obama clearly set new records for presidential popularity. But the burden of the office streams any responsible incumbent into a caste of one. Whether assigned as “professorial” or “elitist”— both terms applied to Obama at one time or another – it’s lonely at the top.
The President we see in Kehinde Wiley’s portrait, unveiled today at the Smithsonian, is the lonely President. Superficially, within the frame of the image, things seem otherwise. The vibrant foliage behind him teems with life. The flowers in the background, as Wiley explained at Monday morning’s unveiling, represent the diverse communities from which Obama draws strength: blue lilies of Kenya; the jasmine of Hawaii; the chrysanthemums of Chicago.
But the President himself seems to inhabit a different universe from his fantasy backdrop. Obama leans forward, brows furrowed as he appears to consider a new intellectual task at hand, his impeccable suit unblemished by the chaos of the wildlife around him. His dark chair seems to float among the leaves, unmoored from the geometry of the landscape.
On this antique wooden chair, Barack Obama could have parachuted in from the Oval Office – this isn’t exactly garden furniture. The greenery of the backdrop shows us Obama’s vitality and global connectedness – but the man himself feels still stuck at his desk.
Wiley has won acclaim over a long career for reasserting the place of African American men in artistic frameworks usually reserved for European royalty. What better subject to crown that achievement than the first African-American president?
Obama shows the authority of monarchy here, but he also sits in a patrician tradition of politicians at the height of their achievement. I was reminded of Graham Sutherland’s 1954 portrait of Winston Churchill. Sutherland intended Churchill to recall the Memorial statue of Abraham Lincoln – another of Obama’s conscious models – knees firmly planted apart in his seat, authoritative, challenging the viewer.
Churchill hated the portrait and his wife eventually destroyed it. Their son explained that the problem was that the British war leader looked “disenchanted.” As Obama would no doubt agree, it’s not easy being an icon.
We don’t know what Michelle Obama thinks of this portrait, and unlike Clementine Churchill she probably won’t get a chance to destroy it. As Jo Livingstone points out at The New Republic, the style of Michelle’s accompanying portrait is at odds with that of her husband.
Barack’s face, in Wiley’s painting, is a study of color detail, while Michelle’s seems flattened into monochrome by artist Amy Sherald. Yet the imposing grace of her appearance hooks the viewer, a dignified celebration of African-American female beauty.
Perhaps these styles clash, but the two portraits will not be shown beside each other. The President’s portrait will be on permanent display on the 2nd floor of the gallery; the First Lady’s will hang in a corridor only until November.
Both portraits are a reminder of a progressive fantasy lived – then lost again. Unconventionally, it’s the President’s portrait which captures that fragility more than that of his wife. The bloom of Wiley’s backdrop bursts with promise. So did Obama’s election. It’s hard not to see the contrast with Obama’s serious expression through the prism of Donald Trump’s election and the sudden deferment of that promise.
But I doubt Obama’s portrait will stay lonely for long. Wiley’s image stands as a testament to that promise, and Obama’s continuing popularity will be measured by the crowds that flock to view it in the Smithsonian. The 44th President may sit aloof on his throne, but I bet he can still draw a crowd.