With the recent unveiling of the Obama’s White House portraits (which are stunning, by the way), I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on the evolution of portraiture. The idea of capturing someone’s likeness has been around for almost as long as humanities has, but accessibility and the evolution of the art world has changed what a portrait really means so much. What started as a once in a lifetime opportunity to capture your wealth and status on canvas, has evolved into selfies and social media that almost everyone has access to. But there’s still something about a painted portrait that still holds so much status. In this case, especially, I think the Obama’s gave us two beautiful pieces that mean two totally different things.
The First Lady’s portrait, painted by Sharon Sprung, is much more stylized than the former President’s. In this case, I think the goal was really to capture Michelle Obama’s essence and personality, not just her outward appearance. With someone as memorable and impactful as Michelle Obama, I think this is a clear artistic decision. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Now you’ll have to stick with me here, but I can’t help but connect back to the past. When I think of paintings with personality, Judith Leyster always comes to mind. She was a Dutch painter in the early sixteen hundreds, and somehow she managed to capture pure energy and spontaneity in an era I don’t usually associate with either of those words. Michelle Obama’s knowing smile in her portrait really reminds me of Leyster’s own self portrait; they both seem to exude this knowing confidence. Even their poses are similar! Maybe I’m biased, but I’ve always thought female artists do an exceptional job of capturing personality and energy. Sharon Sprung only proved me right.
President Obama’s portrait takes a very different stance. Painted by artist Robert McCurdy, this painting is incredibly photo-realistic. Like, do a double take and have to put your nose an inch away to tell its painted photo-realistic. Even more importantly, in my opinion, is that there is absolutely nothing but him. The background is a crisp white, and there is nothing else other than Barack Obama. What a power move. Even though his face and body are quite relaxed, something about this portrait still evokes a sense of power. And, for the sake of continuity, I pressed my memory for another Netherlandish painting from (somewhat) of the same era I could connect with. Most portraits of people in power tend to be outlandish, but there is still power in those unknown. Robert Campin has quite a few portraits that I think would work here, but I always gravitate towards his “Man in Prayer”. Similar to Obama’s portrait, there is incredible realism here, while also an incredible sense of simplicity. The contrast between a solid background and a meaningful subject is palpable almost, as if the tension pops through the image into the air in front of it. Maybe it’s this tension that creates that sense of power. Instead of expressing energy through stylistic approach, as Leyster and Sprung did, here personality relies entirely on the detail of the subject. Something about it really, really works. While yes, posing and expression always play a part, but something about the age lines and reflectivity in the eye just speak for themselves.
Overall, these two portraits are absolutely stunning, and now I have to compare them to the national portrait gallery paintings to pick a favorite. Please, wish me luck. I know I will need it. That’s what you all do in your spare time, right?
Obama Portraits: https://www.npr.org/2022/09/07/1121281696/obama-portrait-white-house
Judith Leyster Self Portrait: https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.37003.html
Robert Campin Man in Prayer: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/435837