The former First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to commission the Baltimore painter Amy Sherald for her official portrait was intriguing. Like the former President Barack Obama’s choice of the painter Kehinde Wiley for his own portrait, it was a demonstration of discriminating taste; these paintings, in the eclectic Smithsonian halls, will relate more easily to Douglas Chandor’s study of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s upper half and fiddling hands, the atomizing of Bill Clinton by Chuck Close, than to Robert A. Anderson’s conservative transcription of George W. Bush. Sherald and Wiley, the first black recipients of commissions from the National Portrait Gallery, are artists with points of view. Wiley is a glittering propagandist who catapults the common black man and the occasional black woman into historical environments of rearing equines and colonial fleur-de-lis tapestries. He placed Obama against his ancestral flora, “hyper-visible and yet always partly hidden,” as my colleague Vinson Cunningham writes.
Evidence of power is more elusive in Sherald’s paintings. Her models are black, and they are creatures of fashion who stand upright against backdrops of pastel monochrome. 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. Instead, these paintings make the viewer speculate about the quieter wants and wishes of the black common men and women who have emerged on the linen en grisaille—Sherald’s taupe variant of grayscale—like ghosts.
At the Smithsonian unveiling, Michelle Obama and the forty-four-year-old Sherald together pulled down brown wraps to expose a painting of shocking mystery. It is a portrait of the first black First Lady in an abundant gown, designed by one of her favorites, Michelle Smith for Milly. Smith, in an interview with Vogue, has said that the dress’s “clean, minimal geometric print” is “without a reference to anything past or nostalgic” and is “forward-thinking,” like Obama herself. But at the lectern, introducing the six-by-five-foot “ ‘Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,’ oil on linen, 2018,” Sherald said that the shapes reminded her of Mondrian, and the diligent quilt-making of the black women artisans of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. “My approach to portraiture is conceptual,” she said. Obama herself emphasized that she did not come from the sort of family that had had members sit for portraits. As a variation of the classical American pioneer, she sought out Sherald to translate what being the first meant to her.
The painting is shocking because Sherald has somehow conjured a vision of Michelle Obama, one of the most photographed women in history, that we have not yet seen—one free of the candid Washingtonian glamour found in photographs such as those in Amanda Lucidon’s “Chasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer.” Obama sits against sky-blue oblivion, the triangular shape of the dress turning her into a mountain. Sherald may be the portrait artist of “American people,” and Obama, looking askance, leaning slightly, may want to be a part of that record, but she is also a symbol, an aggrandizement. The racializing schema of Sherald’s work is to “exclude the idea of color as race,” she has said, in her artist’s statement. To Sherald, the photorealistic depiction of race—a quality determined by others’ eyes, externally—is a dead end. Applied to Michelle Obama, the lack of brown in the skin feels first like a loss, and then like a real gain. This is a different Michelle, a woman evacuated of celebrity, who appears provisionally dreamlike, nearly a shadow. The mouth and the eyes and the strong arms that we know are present, but fainter. From some distance, I can imagine, the figure might not be immediately recognizable.
To some, the lack of racial verisimilitude may be intolerable. And yet this is how the subject would like posterity—young black girls especially, she said in a speech—to see her, through Sherald’s vision: as a herald of success. In this way, Sherald wondrously troubles assumptions about blackness and representation in portraiture. Looking at it, I thought for a moment of Kerry James Marshall’s portraits, especially his 1980 self-portrait, in which the artist depicts himself as an actual black void, only eyes and teeth gleaming. The phantasmic grayscale of Sherald’s painting makes one work to bring its subject to life—to remember what Michelle Obama has endured. From her husband’s first campaign she was scrutinized, even more than her husband, who was the one running—an appearance on “Larry King Live” had viewers nervous about her stridency. She was exhorted, by worriers of all races, to be soft. She had to give America fewer reasons to say ugly things, to make ugly cartoons. It is undeniable that there was a shift in how she was marketed. Commercials de-emphasized Michelle Obama’s legal career—in fact, it was she who had mentored Barack, not the other way around—and pushed her domestic identity as a mother. The tenure of the first black First Lady was defined by her no-nonsense charm, her easy beauty, her rhetorical gifts, her championing of healthy meals for the young and the poor. She had a long-lasting emotional effect on millions of people. And then she had to hand the baton to Melania Trump. One wonders what the sitter divulged to the portraitist, who has experienced her own trials—deaths in the family, a heart transplant. One wonders how the years in the White House—which, Michelle Obama reminded the country, had been built by slaves—affected her.
I think the portrait is one answer. It is an intensely private work of art that will seem otherworldly in whichever state gallery hall it is hung. “What have we done?” Michelle Obama has said she asked her husband the first time she watched her two daughters leave the White House for school, shadowed by a Secret Service army. In public exit interviews, Michelle Obama is open about her relief that the eight years is over. The portrait, beautiful and discomfiting, is like a memory of what we never knew.