‘I Consider Myself an American Realist’: Watch Portraitist Amy Sherald Reimagine Historic Images to Reflect the Contemporary Moment

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 11 episode, "Everyday Icons," 2023. © Art21, Inc. 2023.

How do you paint a picture of the life and the people of America? That question is what artist Amy Sherald seeks to answer with her large-scale, striking, and colorful portraits of everyday Black individuals.

Of course, hearing the name Amy Sherald, one immediately thinks of her most famous subjects that define the best and worst of America—the historic portrait of the regal yet approachable former first lady Michelle Obama and the striking depiction of the young medical worker Breonna Taylor, who was murdered in her home by police officers. Both images have become cultural beacons, and throngs of visitors have traveled to museums around the country to stand in the presence of the strong Black women Sherald portrays.

In the first episode of the brand-new season of Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century, viewers get to go inside the studio with the artist, who discusses the influences that inform her portraits, and how she is painting the world she wants to see.

I consider myself an American Realist,” Sherald said in the exclusive interview. “For me, it means recognizing my Americanness first, and wanting the work to join a greater ongoing conversation.”

When the Obamas selected her alongside artist Kehinde Wiley to paint the presidential portraits—the first two Black artists commissioned to do so—Sherald immediately skyrocketed to fame, but her practice hasn’t changed and remains deeply rooted in her individual experience. 

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 11 episode, "Everyday Icons," 2023. © Art21, Inc. 2023.

Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 11 episode, “Everyday Icons,” 2023. © Art21, Inc. 2023.

The artist reflects on one of her earliest memories of visiting an art museum, where she saw a painting by Bo Bartlett of a Black man standing in front of a house. “I was shocked,” she recalled, noting that she had never seen anyone who looked like her in such a setting. In that moment, “I realized I wanted to make paintings like that. I was able to see my future in that moment,” she explained.

In the video, the artist is seen at work on a series of paintings based on famous American photographs, including Alfred Eisenstaedt’s seminal 1945 shot of a sailor kissing a stranger on V-J Day in Times Square, reimagining them in a contemporary manner. In her version of the classic image, two men are caught in the passionate embrace.

“When I think about who’s going to be represented in my work,” Sherald said, “I think it speaks to the moment.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series “Art in the Twenty-First Century” below. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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