Amy Sherald has achieved something distinctive in her painted vision of one of the most photographed women of the twenty-first century.
Michelle Obama chose the Baltimore artist for her official portrait as First Lady of USA, unveiled in 2018. It was important to Obama that her portraitist should be an African-American woman, whose family, like her own, were once slaves. Sherald deploys her signature use of greyscale for Mrs Obama’s skin, an approach that refuses to encode racial difference through the use of colour, and thus establishes what is, in the domain of portraiture, a historically-unprecedented equality between races. As Antwaun Sargent comments (2018), ‘race is central to the narrative of Mrs Obama as an “ideal” wife because she is a pioneer: a black woman who became a first lady’.
Capturing an enigmatic facial expression which is much more than just a smile for the camera, this portrait is a powerful vision of Obama’s unique character and grace, which she used to promote issues such as access to healthy food for the poor in America and education for girls worldwide. In the spirit of Proverbs 31, she spoke up for those who could not speak for themselves, and for the rights of those who are destitute (vv.8–9).
The dress worn by Obama is from the prestigious label ‘Milly’ by Michelle Smith. The wife of Proverbs 31, is also richly clothed (v.22). Sherald plays on conventions of ruler imagery by using the dress, spread in a wide triangle, to create monumentality in the composition. The bold geometric designs of black and grey on white, with red, yellow, and pink, reminded Sherald of paintings by Piet Mondrian, which she emulates by minimizing the folds of drapery. For Sherald, the dress patterns also evoked the long-standing traditions of quilting among black African-American women.
The choice of a sleeveless dress is daring within the traditions of First Lady portraits and highlights Mrs Obama’s much talked-about muscular arms. While alluding to the idea of labour in her family heritage, these are transformed in a message of contemporary beauty and physical fitness. Read together with Proverbs 31, they also speak of her arms extended towards the poor and needy (v.20), and the strength and dignity with which she clothed herself in office (v.25).
St Félix, Doreen. 2018. ‘The Mystery of Amy Sherald’s Portrait of Michelle Obama, 13 February 2018’, www.newyorker.com, [accessed 26 April 2018]
Sargent, Antwaun. 2018. ‘Inside the Obama Portraits Unveiling. Witnessing Visions of Black Power Shake Up a Gallery of White History, 13 February 2018’, www.wmagazine.com, [accessed 26 April 2018]
Artwork institution details
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg; Judith Kern and Kent Whealy; Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia; Clarence, DeLoise, and Brenda Gaines; Jonathan and Nancy Lee Kemper; The Stoneridge Fund of Amy and Marc Meadows; Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker; Catherine and Michael Podell; Mark and Cindy Aron; Lyndon J. Barrois and Janine Sherman Barrois; The Honorable John and Louise Bryson; Paul and Rose Carter; Bob and Jane Clark; Lisa R. Davis; Shirley Ross Davis and Family; Alan and Lois Fern; Conrad and Constance Hipkins; Sharon and John Hoffman; Audrey M. Irmas; John Legend and Chrissy Teigen; Eileen Harris Norton; Helen Hilton Raiser; Philip and Elizabeth Ryan; Roselyne Chroman Swig; Josef Vascovitz and Lisa Goodman; Eileen Baird; Dennis and Joyce Black Family Charitable Foundation; Shelley Brazier; Aryn Drake-Lee; Andy and Teri Goodman; Randi Charno Levine and Jeffrey E. Levine; Fred M. Levin and Nancy Livingston, The Shenson Foundation; Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago; Arthur Lewis and Hau Nguyen; Sara and John Schram; Alyssa Taubman and Robert Rothman