Portrait Problem?

A painting of former First Lady Michelle Obama stirs debate

Amy Sherald (b. 1973), First Lady Michelle Obama, 2018. Oil on linen, 72 1/8x60 1/8x2 3/4in. (183.2x152.7x7cm). National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. Accession #PA//NPG.18-57. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (see full credits below)

How does Sherald represent the former first lady?

What makes a portrait successful? Must it look like the subject? Should it contain symbolism? These questions are at the center of a controversy surrounding former First Lady Michelle Obama’s official portrait.

Curators at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery unveiled the painting, by Amy Sherald, in February. Reactions to the painting were mixed. Some people applauded the unusual portrait with the subject rendered in shades of gray. Others questioned whether the painting is an accurate—or flattering—representation.

Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty Images

Sherald paints Obama wearing a cotton dress by Michelle Smith, an American clothing designer. At the unveiling, Sherald explained that the pattern on the dress reminds her of traditional quilts made in the American South. The dress may be a symbolic reference to Obama’s ancestors, who were enslaved Africans.

The dress dominates the work, filling most of the composition. Fans say that the triangular-shaped dress is like an arrow pointing to Obama’s face. The first lady appears almost as a mountain, a symbol of strength. Critics argue that the bold geometric pattern actually draws attention away. They say that the subject’s face appears to be too small for her body. They also argue that the dress is the true subject of the painting, not the first lady.

What do you think?

Is this portrait an appropriate likeness of the subject? Or does the artist take too much creative freedom with the way she explores the subject?

Tell us what you think.
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