Michelle and Barack Obama’s Official Portraits: Emotive Pseudo-Realism

021418-01 Barack & Michelle Obama (resize)

The two smiles that stick in my memory and soul are not only Mona Lisa’s inscrutable smile but also Barack Obama’s tender, joyful smile. From where Da Vinci’s masterpiece sits in its place of honor at the Louvre in Paris to a rented ballroom in Des Moines, Iowa, is quite a stretch. But in that ballroom in Des Moines the night that Barack won the Iowa caucuses contest in 2008, launching him toward the presidency, I watched and wondered at how he smiled as he greeted well-wishers. The smile on display that evening crinkled his eyes, vibrantly yet softly, with a conveyed sense of gratitude, wonder, and authenticity; absent was stern gravitas or over-the-top, hackneyed, thumbs-up waves to the crowd. Alongside him, Michelle Obama came across as even more subdued as well as humble and grateful.

So joining the nation in seeing the official presidential likenesses unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday was something of a shock. I applaud both the former first man and first lady choosing distinguished African-American portrait artists to depict them, breaking the former monopoly of white artists depicting white presidents in mostly a vanilla style. In Barack’s case, Kehinde Wiley has gone with his penchant for painting other African-American subjects prior to Barack in fairly regal poses.  At the National Portrait Gallery installation ceremony, Barack admitted that Wiley had tried putting him atop a horse and a throne, before settling for a formal chair nestled amid greenery.

As to Barack’s smile, the one I saw in Des Moines that January evening has long ago been eaten alive by Mitch McConnell and other Republicans who sought to obstruct Barack’s progress in office. The smile evident in Wiley’s portrait is slight and overwhelmed by seriousness. The eyebrows pinched and pulled down, the lower eyelids raised and taut, the lips pressing together firmly enough that a bulge is vaguely evident beneath the middle of the lower lip all contribute to a sense of a thoughtful, frustrated, even brooding man. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. But where that comparison Barack invited himself by launching his campaign in Springfield, Illinois a decade ago breaks down is that instead of Lincoln’s sadness, here we have disgust hinted at by a slightly raised upper lip but mostly evident from how the cheeks pouch on either side of Barack’s nose.

Why the anger shown on Barack’s face? That isn’t his most signature emotion. A joyful, eyes- twinkling smile might qualify instead, or even more so than disgust the contemptuous smirk that crept into Barack’s facial expressions repertoire the longer he stayed in the White House. Is it that anger signals being in control, as indicated by the former president learning forward in his chair rather than drifting above and away from the partisan fray, as was to a fault Barack’s natural tendency?

As for Michelle’s portrait by Amy Sherald, it’s if anything even more unexpected.  The striking white patterned gown is arguably as much the focal point as the woman wearing it. But for me, it’s Michelle’s facial expression that intrigues most. The pressed lips, the narrowed eye, the cheek pouched on the opposite side of her face: in those ways Michelle’s feelings are shown mirroring those of her husband. But that I think is only, in part, who Michelle is emotionally. Outer eyebrows raised higher would more faithfully reflect her tendency to be surprised, even a little fearful, which she fights through with a big hearty smile that isn’t as effervescent as Barack’s smile at its best: more like beer with a good head of foam in Michelle’s case, as opposed to Barack’s champagne smile.

That said, there’s this final oddity about Michelle’s portrait: she’s in repose. Her legs seem to be crossed beneath the gown, and her head is resting on the upside-down palm of her hand in a way that to me suggests some measure of slightly dainty passivity. In short, the two portraits are a relief from the usual, vanilla-flavored portraits of past first couples. But if this pair of portraits doesn’t quite come home for me, emotionally, it’s because whereas Barack is portrayed as too tense and assertive, Michelle is portrayed as not as wide-eyed, innocent, and frisky as I believe she’s remained.

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