'More artistic than most typical official portraits'

Slate speaks to Richard J. Powell, a professor of art and art history at Duke University and an expert in the history of black portraiture, about the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, which were unveiled recently

Rachelle Hampton: So what did you think of the portraits and of the Obamas’ choice of artists? 

Richard Powell: I was surprised by the portraits and what I mean by that is, I found them to be more artistic than most typical official portraits are. If you go to the National Portrait Gallery and look at portraits of famous people, they tend to be real vanity pictures and often by artists who are able to do a likeness but they’re not able to really make what I would consider a profound artistic statement. There are lots of great portraits out there, but these are really strong works of art as well as portraits. 

As to the choice of the artists, I thought it was special. Amy Sherald has been in the pipeline for a little while, but not as long as Kehinde Wiley, and so choosing to place someone I would still call up and coming alongside someone I would certainly call a veteran was inspired. 

What statements do you think the artists are trying to make here? What do you think they’re trying to communicate? 

Well, I want to separate them out. I want to start with the Michelle Obama portrait: It’s very much in Sherald’s style, which are these figures that are often placed on very flat backgrounds. She experiments with chroma so that the figures are not necessarily representing things in a realistic way, but they provide an interesting relationship of one color to another to another. What I was struck by in the Michelle Obama portrait was the graphic quality of it, and when I say graphic I mean that the dress is this dramatic abstract statement—the patterns in it, the bold shapes, the limited color palette—and that has an interesting way of interacting with Mrs. Obama’s figure, her famous arms are there, and they frame her head. Amy Sherald really is attuned to the interrelationship between the body and a pose and the accoutrements that surround that pose, in this case a very bold dress