Why the Obamas’ Portrait Choices Matter

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Barack and Michelle Obama don’t like to waste an opportunity, in word or action, to make larger points about contemporary life and culture. In that vein, their choices of artists for their official portraits in the collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery shine a spotlight on the state of American art. One is an established figurative painter, the other is relatively unknown and a possible rising art-world star. Both are African-American.

In their selection of Kehinde Wiley, for Mr. Obama’s likeness, and Amy Sherald, for Mrs. Obama’s, announced Friday, the Obamas continue to highlight the work of contemporary and modern African-American artists, as they so often did with the artworks they chose to live with in the White House, by Glenn Ligon, Alma Thomas and William H. Johnson, among others. Their choices then and now reflect the Obamas’ instincts for balancing the expected and the surprising, and for being alert to painting’s pertinence to the moment.

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Amy Sherald, the first woman to win the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, in 2016, is painting Michelle Obama’s official likeness. She is shown with her prizewinning oil, “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance)” from 2013. CreditPaul Morigi/Associated Press for National Portrait Gallery

Mr. Wiley, who is 40 and known for his art-historically savvy portraits of young black men and women, has been on collectors’ must-have lists for more than a decade. His visibility expanded exponentially when his work was featured in 2015 on the Fox television series “Empire,” in the art collection of Lucious Lyon, the record label founder played by Terrence Howard.

The choice of Ms. Sherald adds a tantalizing element of risk to the commissions by virtue of her relative obscurity. She was unknown to the National Portrait Gallery curators when the selection process began, Kim Sajet, the museum’s director, said in an interview Sunday

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The Obamas’ choices come at a time when figurative painting and portraiture are growing in popularity among young painters interested in exploring race, gender and identity or in simply correcting the historic lack of nonwhites in Western painting.

The current landscape for figurative painting includes scores of talented artists — some established, like Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas and Henry Taylor, and others emerging, including Jordan Casteel, Aliza Nisenbaum and Louis Fratino, as well as Njideka Akunyili-Crosby, who was just awarded a MacArthur genius grant. The added prominence of Ms. Sherald and Mr. Wiley can only push this lively conversation forward.

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