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The Art and Symbolism of Presidential Portraits

One of the more unique elements in helping to build the legacy of an American President has been the presidential portrait. Those considered to be the best and most talented artists at the time are called upon to capture the likeness of the President, often in a specific and preferential manner.

The first and most iconic of these portraits is the Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796. This was not the first portrait the artist painted of Washington, however, it’s one of the most famous and is on permanent display at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. There are also multiple replicas painted by Stuart as well as other artists over the years.

While a majority of the presidential portraits are painted in a classical European style, they are often filled with symbolism. In this example, Washington is seen full-length and presented in a dignified and serious manner. Two Doric columns can be seen in the back—which are often associated with strength and masculinity— and the table leg resembles a Roman fasces, which is a symbol of power and authority. The painting delivers a certain image, one that almost contradicts the hot temper that Washington was known to have. Stuart set out to portray the President as a prudent and wise leader, and in this he succeeded.

For the most part, a majority of the presidential portraits are painted in a classical European portrait style. It isn’t until later that the artists began incorporating their own style, which can be seen in the portraits of Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent, John F. Kennedy by Elaine de Kooning, and Bill Clinton by Chuck Close.

Originally, the official portrait of Clinton was painted by Nelson Shanks, who allegedly added a visual reference to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The painting was rotated off view and replaced with the commission by the Chuck Close version (seen on the left).

The National Portrait Gallery began commissioning artists starting with George H.W. Bush, and expanded the commissions to include the First Lady starting with Hillary Clinton. On February 12th, 2018, the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were revealed. The Gallery presented the portfolios of 20 artists, with the Obamas choosing Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. Both artists have amazingly unique styles and commitments to painting people that have traditionally been marginalized. The portraits were received with a mixture of feelings, and many have stated that the choice of these artists was a risk. However, looking deeper at each of the artists and what inspires them, it’s clear why the choice was made.


Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

Kehinde Wiley is an award winning New York City artist that has exhibited all over the world, and is known for his naturalistic paintings of African-Americans. His work is a fusion of the Renaissance masters, Rococo, Islamic Architecture, hip-hop, and West African textile design. While many of Wiley’s paintings seem to take a jab at the spectacle and grandiosity of historical painting, this portrait shows the former President sitting down, without a tie, and surrounded by flowers that each hold a specific meaning. Jasmines for Hawaii, African blue lilies for his Kenyan heritage, and chrysanthemums, which are the official flower for Chicago.

Amy Sherald, is an artist out of Baltimore who is known for painting life-size portraits of African-Americans. Not only is she considered a rising star, but she was the first woman to win the Outwin Boochever Portrait competition, and was awarded the High Museum of Art’s David Driskell Prize. Her paintings, while stylized and colorful, feature gray skin tones and these are used so the artist can “subversively comment about race without feeling as though [they’re] excluding the viewer.” It’s this portrait that much of the criticism seems to revolve around, however when you look this portrait in the context of Sherald’s previous, it fits perfectly.

The face does not resemble Michelle Obama’s in the same manner that Wiley painted the President, but this is in line with Sherald’s previous work as well. It could also have been done for a very specific purpose. Dorothy Moss, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, once heard Sherald speak to young African-American girls at a gallery talk and state “I painted this for you so that when you go to a museum you will see someone who looks like you on the wall.” With this is mind, maybe Michelle Obama’s face being instantly recognizable wasn’t the most important aspect of the piece.

Wiley and Sherald are the first African-American artists to be commissioned to paint presidential portraits. The works are not only a break from the traditional portraits of the past century, but are also the first time contemporary artists whose work aims to challenge long held ideas of power and privilege will be given a permanent space in an institution such as the National Portrait Gallery.

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Art historian, burrito enthusiast, and Email Marketing Specialist here at Redbubble.