Surprise! Twitter Is Divided Over Kehinde Wiley’s and Amy Sherald’s Daring Portraits of the Obamas

Social media went right to work, penning its own reviews of Wiley's and Sherald's portraits.

At left, Kehinde Wiley's portrait of Barack Obama. At right, Amy Sherald's portrait of Michelle Obama.

In a historic moment, the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled today at the National Portrait Gallery, in the nation’s capital. The first African-American couple to live in the White House are also the first to be painted by African-American artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.

The artists’ stylistic departure from previous portraits is just as dramatic as the move toward a more inclusive roster of official portraitists. President Obama, in Wiley’s portrait, appears not in front of the backdrop of the Oval Office, but rather in a sea of greenery—and, notably, in an open-necked shirt. Sherald, meanwhile, has crafted an image of Michelle Obama whose impact relies less on a strict resemblance and more on the former first lady’s status as a fashion icon.

Some reviews are already in: In the New York Times, Holland Cotter’s glowing review says that each portrait radiates, “in a different way, gravitas (his) and glam (hers).” Some of the earliest presidents, Cotter notes, were slaveholders, making today’s unveiling a particularly dramatic departure from any previous one. Philip Kennicott, writing for the Washington Post, says that “both painters have managed to create compelling likenesses without sacrificing key aspects of their signature styles.”

Social media is writing its own collective review, and a survey of Twitter reveals the portraits are just as divisive as they are daring.

Black Is Beautiful

Prominent black writers, art experts, and other cultural figures weighed in: They’re jazzed.

Comparison Shopping

Inevitably, some observers couldn’t help but riff on the Obamas’ portraits to compare them to the current occupants of the White House, to comment on Trump’s reversal of Obama’s policies, and to imagine what the Trumps’ portraits are liable to look like.

A Garden Variety Portrait

Some observers mocked the garden motif in the former president’s portrait, which they see as having a few notable precedents.

Posing a Question

Plenty of observers don’t see much likeness in the first lady’s portrait:

Doh! Barack vs. Homer

For some, the leafy background in Wiley’s painting recalled an image of another famous American father. Commentators left and right jumped on the Homer train, one grabbing the opportunity for an indictment of the former president’s military policies, another echoing the conclusions of a certain Devin Nunes-authored memo.

What Happened?

Had things gone differently in November 2016, a different president would have been in office for the unveiling of the Wiley and Sherald portraits. Some on the right took the opportunity to poke fun at Hillary for losing.


And Now, Your Moment of Zen

One comedian saw—in a creepy, bargain-basement painting of a child—a portrait of one of Trump’s best-known surrogates.

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