Everyone asks for Michelle.
I think they assume that her husband, the former leader of the free world must be next to her. Still, the vast majority come to the information desk look for her. For “Michelle.” Their close personal friend, wife to “Mr. Obama” or “President Obama.”
When Amy Sherald revealed her portrait of the first lady, the public seemed briefly confused. The portrait looked nothing like the subject. Or rather, it basically resembled the subject – well enough that it could not be mistaken for anyone else – but the face was off. The grey coloration of Michelle’s skin also bothered people. To not represent the first African American first lady with her real skin tone seemed a wasted opportunity.
In spite of, or likely because of, the unconventional choices Sherald made, the portrait has attracted a record number of visitors to the National Portrait Gallery. The museum actually had to move the painting to a different part of the building to provide more space for viewers.
Sherald’s portrait of everyday Americans share the strange grey coloration of Mrs. Obama. Representing her subjects in grey provides Sherald a means of “to subversively comment about race without feeling as though I’m excluding the viewer.” Her other portraits are not photographic reproductions of the sitter either. They are everyday African American whom Sherald elevate through her work.
The dress Michelle wears also recalls politics and history. The dress is real, not dreamt up by the artist, but from the collection of celebrated African American designer Michelle Smith of Milly. Obama and Sherald picked the dress specifically as it recalled African American quilt patterns from the South. And of course, the former first lady looked stunning in it.
A few days after the portrait was installed it caught another burst of viral sensation. A clip of an adorable little black girl admiring the first lady’s portrait zoomed all over the internet. Michelle meet with the girl and her mother and the public dabbed a collective watery eye. It’s a good reminder that the goal of art is not to be a photograph, but to create moments like that.
Sherald, Amy. Amy Sherald Discusses Portrait of Former First Lady Michelle Obama. By Ari Shaprio. NPR All Things Considered, February 12, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/02/12/585177701/artist-amy-sherald-discusses-portrait-of-former-first-lady-michelle-obama
McCauley, Mary Carole. “Get to know Amy Sherald, the Baltimore artists painting Michelle Obama’s official protrait.” The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, MD), Feb. 9, 2018. http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/arts/bs-fe-amy-sherald-michelle-obama-portrait-20180207-story.html
“Former First Lady, Michelle Obama by Artist Amy Serald.” Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Feburary 2018. http://npg.si.edu/exhibition/former-first-lady-michelle-obama-artist-amy-sherald