Unorthodox Portraits of Obamas on Display at de Young Museum

By Noma Faingold

Viewers had a wide range of emotional reactions – from exuberance, awe and pride to melancholy feelings of nostalgia – on June 18, opening day of the Northern California stop of the Obama Portraits Tour, being exhibited through Aug. 14, at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.

The unconventional portraits of former U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama – which were unveiled in 2018 and are part of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. – have been on an unprecedented seven-city tour since last summer. It is estimated that more than one million people will have seen the portraits up close after the final stop at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Sept. 3 to Oct. 30.

“Barack Obama” by Kehinde Wiley, oil on canvas, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

“These have become pilgrimage paintings,” said Timothy Anglin Burgard, senior curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “They’re pioneering. They challenge the status quo. The Obama portraits have revived our interest in portraiture. The portraits represent the realization of the American dream.”

“Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama” by Amy Sherald, oil on linen, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

The Barack Obama portrait, painted by Kehinde Wiley, an artist the former president chose, looks nothing like official presidential portraits of the past. Instead of an office backdrop, Obama is surrounded by leaves and flowers. He is leaning forward in a somewhat ornate 19th century chair. His expression is ambiguous, showing both concern and warmth. His hands are a focal point.

At the unveiling, Obama said of Wiley, “What I was always struck by, whenever I saw his portraits, was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege.”

On the back of the canvas, Wiley didn’t just sign his name. He wrote, “The greatest president in history.”

While many viewers at the de Young were taking selfies with the portraits, others lingered, examining and digesting the works.

“I love the juxtaposition of nature in the background. It softens the way he’s looking,” said Colette Dominique-Riley, 47, visiting with her family from New Orleans. “We were at the Academy of Sciences. When I saw that the portraits were here, I knew we had to come.” 

Dominque-Riley and her husband, Vernon Riley, 54, attended both of Obama’s inaugurations, along with her eldest son, Caleb Riley, 15. “I see determination and pride,” said Vernon.

Michelle Obama also selected the artist who would capture her image. Amy Sherald is a portraitist known for depicting African Americans in everyday settings. Her style is simplified realism. 

The even-toned, celestial blue background puts all the focus on Michelle. The geometric print on the gown (designed by Michelle Smith then of Milly) references Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and the celebrated quilts of Gee’s Bend, created by members of the small Alabama community, some of whom are descendants of slaves.

Michelle’s skin tone is a monochromatic gray. 

“The artist wanted to take race off the table,” said Burgard, who described Michelle’s pose as “anchored but ethereal.”

“What I see is Michelle not letting all the naysayers get to her – what black women have to deal with on the day to day,” said Dominique-Riley. “Women of other cultures don’t seem to meet society’s standards of beauty. We have our own beauty. Michelle is very proud of that.”

Jennifer Ibbotson, 47, of Palo Alto, brought her 8-year-old daughter, Alice. 

“The Michelle portrait says something about her strength,” said Ibbotson. “She knows who she is.”

Jennifer Ibbotson of Palo Alto with daughter, Alice, 8. Photo by Noma Faingold

Tessa Graham Person, 41, of Fremont found both portraits fascinating. 

“I can look into his eyes and read his emotions. I can see pain and everything he had to deal with as president.

“In the Michelle painting, I see a strong, black woman, who is very sure of herself,” added Graham Person. “Her resiliency as a person comes through.”

Museum member Pa Tamba Ngom, 57, of Point Richmond, who visits the de Young once a month, was delighted to see the Obama portraits. 

“The skin tone of Obama glows,” he said. “I took a picture to show my children they could be president one day.”

Pa Tamba Ngom of Point Richmond said, “The skin tone of Obama glows. I took a picture to show my children they could be president one day.” Photo by Noma Faingold.

The Obama Portraits Tour continues through Aug. 14 at the de Young Museum. Due to popularity, booking a timed ticket online is recommended. For more information, go to

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