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The critics are missing what’s special about Michelle Obama’s portrait

Mrs. Obama’s painting isn’t a perfect match to Barack’s. And it’s not supposed to be.

Former US First Lady Michelle Obama (L) and artist Amy Sherald (R) unveil Mrs. Obama's portrait at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Former US First Lady Michelle Obama (L) and artist Amy Sherald (R) unveil Mrs. Obama's portrait at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

When Michelle Obama’s official portrait by the Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald was unveiled on Monday, the painting behind the black veil received modest cheers and a round of polite — restrained, even — applause. The crowd of gathered journalists, art critics, and pop culture figures alike didn’t quite know what to make of the finished product, which depicts the former First Lady seated against a robin’s egg blue background, dressed in a massive white and black gown with a few spots of color, her skin tone a muted gray hue. The depiction of a serene-looking Mrs. Obama has a small hint of a smile on her face.

“To be honest, I was anticipating — hoping for — a bolder, more incisive image of the strong-voiced person I imagine this former first lady to be,” Holland Cotter of the New York Times wrote.

The Washington Post’s Pulitzer-winning art critic Philip Kennicott told CNN he anticipated the art world will have mixed reviews to the portrait.

Soon the reaction started to come in from the general public on Twitter. The resounding sentiment? “It looks nothing like her.” Another common reaction: “It’s very underwhelming.”

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I heard similar responses from my own friends and colleagues. During the portraits’ unveiling on Monday, I heard several exclamations of “What?” and “Really?” in the ThinkProgress newsroom. A coworker noted that Michelle’s portrait didn’t look like it belonged next to Barack’s. In a group chat between friends, one suggested that perhaps she needed to see Michelle’s portrait separate from Barack’s in order to more fully appreciate it.

I think she was onto something. It’s true that Mrs. Obama’s painting isn’t a perfect match to Barack’s — and it’s not supposed to be. After all, they weren’t painted together or by the same artist. Instead, they were deliberately commissioned by two different artists for their unique approaches to portraiture.

Sherald’s work consists of portraits of everyday African Americans painted with elements of whimsy and surrealism. The subjects are typically set against solid backgrounds, posed with a similar calm expression across their faces.

Take Sherald’s “It Made Sense… Mostly In Her Mind,” which depicts a woman dressed as a jockey holding a stick unicorn set against a royal blue background. The woman’s skin is the grayish hue that Sherald is known for. Using this the gray, she says, is a way for her to comment on race without confronting the viewer. This may be her goal, but the gray skin — while it isn’t imposing — is so inviting that it actually underscores just how black each of her subjects are. (You can gray out our blackness, but it’s still there. You can ignore our truths, but they’re still true.)  Another painting, “They Call Me Redbone, But I’d Rather Be Strawberry Shortcake,” features a young woman wearing pigtails and a yellow dress in a strawberry print, with an expression mixed with sadness and resolve. The title and the execution challenge the viewer to unpack the pressure of being America’s idea of black — “redbone” is an often derogatory term used to describe light-skinned or multiracial women — when that ideal is in conflict with your own truth.

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Sherald’s strength is in teasing out the crux of a person, and she’s very good at exposing a subject’s most intimate truth through subliminal signaling. She also makes a point of painting “civilians.” If this is who Mrs. Obama thought could best communicate her legacy, what do we think she’s trying to say?

Let’s start with what we know about Mrs. Obama. She’s from Chicago. She’s well educated. She’s a mother. She’s a wife. She’s stylish. She’s vibrant. She’s strong. She’s a modern woman. And she’s cemented in nearly all of our minds as this perfect combination of a powerhouse career woman and a charismatic leading lady. She’s also very deliberate in her intention — and she chose a portrait artist who works in a style of muted grays and surreal whimsy.

Perhaps Michelle and Sherald went in this direction because they weren’t attempting to create the Michelle we all know and love, but rather the version of Michelle that she sees for herself.

Sherald has given us a depiction of Mrs. Obama that at first glance may seem far from her likeness in the face, color scheme, pose, and energy. The painting’s stark contrast to the idea of the Mrs. Obama we hold in our heads helps draws you in. The initial question — “Why doesn’t this look like her?” — is enough to keep your attention.

But, after closer inspection, the painting starts to reveal Mrs. Obama.

Her usually animated face is still there; it’s just calm. She looks as though she’s at peace with the nation she was part of helming for eight years. She’s let go of what she couldn’t do and is taking stock of what she was able to accomplish. The long softly curled dark tendrils surrounding her face speak to the low-maintenance glamour and femininity she was known for. This hair, so loose and sprawling, is also the closest we’ve seen her to a more natural style. (Remember when her big hair reveal was new bangs?)

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Her long periwinkle nails resemble the kind of talons worn brazenly by modern urban women. Of course she’s posed so you can catch a glimpse of her wedding ring — a reminder of a big reason behind her seemingly eternal relevancy.

The dress she’s wearing in the portrait was designed by Michelle Smith of the Milly brand — an American brand that’s considered affordable luxury. Milly, as the Washington Post’s Robin Givhan notes, is known for sports wear as well. Smith said this dress was meant to reflect the idea that we’re close to equality in every sector, but not quite near the finish line.

Mrs. Obama noted in an Instagram post about the portrait that no one in her family — hailing from the South Side of Chicago and the descendants of slaves — has ever had a portrait of themselves. She writes about the overwhelming honor this truly is for someone who was once a mere civilian and who has since been ushered into American royalty.

As a young girl, even in my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined this moment. Nobody in my family has ever had a portrait – there are no portraits of the Robinsons or the Shields from the South Side of Chicago. This is all a little bit overwhelming, especially when I think about all of the young people who will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this, including so many young girls and young girls of color who don’t often see their images displayed in beautiful and iconic ways. I am so proud to help make that kind of history. But the fact is that none of this would be possible without the extraordinary artist and woman behind this portrait, @asherald. Thank you, Amy – it was a joy to work with you and get to know you.

A post shared by Michelle Obama (@michelleobama) on

Obama’s Instagram post referred to her relatives using her maiden name, which was a jolt. It’s a sharp reminder that she was someone before she was an Obama. She is someone despite being an Obama. She is distinct from all the other First Ladies to come before her. She was the first one to hug the Queen of England, she was featured in a Carpool Karaoke with Missy Elliott, she was black.

Meanwhile, Barack was a superhero for a lot of people in the way that a rapper is to his hometown. He deserves the decadence and the opulence of a Kehinde Wiley painting — whose work often depicts black people with an almost Baroque level of drama, using a lot of color to create images that turn people into heroic royalty. Barack is a dope black American king. And like lots of kings throughout history, this role, and the legacy even though he campaigned for it, is something that was thrust upon him — so it makes sense for Wiley to paint him in the vibrant colors his people see him in, to symbolically crown him.

Mrs. Obama’s role in the zeitgeist has more flexibility, which she’s proven by this portrait. She’s with Barack, but she’s her own entity. She’s a complicated woman who spent eight years representing a complicated and young country. She’s a mother, a wife, a Chicagoan who worked hard for everything she’s got. She’s humble, she’s gracious, she’s empowering. She’s Michelle.