Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
SAN FRANCISCO – The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are proud to present the portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, as part of “The Obama Portraits Tour” organized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The portraits will be on view at the de Young museum from June 18 to August 14, 2022. The installation will also include an eight-minute-long video featuring the curator and artists discussing the historical and artistic significance of the portraits.
“Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of former President Barack Obama and Amy Sherald’s portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama are groundbreaking American portraits that speak to the sense of hope and possibility that the Obamas inspire,” remarked Tom Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Both Wiley and Sherald are artists who work within the genre of Western portraiture painting, while actively expanding, and critiquing artistic conventions that have traditionally defined representations of power. We are thrilled that Bay Area audiences will have the opportunity to experience these powerful, iconic paintings in person at the de Young museum.”
“‘The Obama Portraits Tour’ is an opportunity to bring the power of portraiture to different audiences across the nation,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery. “Portraiture is incomplete without the viewer and these paintings have elicited responses that range from deep contemplation to pure joy. We are delighted to be able to extend this experience to San Francisco and Boston for a tour spanning eight cities with the nation’s capital included.”
The paintings were commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery and unveiled February 12, 2018, in the presence of the Obamas and the artists. Wiley and Sherald are the first African American artists to have been selected for the Portrait Gallery’s official portraits of a President or First Lady. The two artists worked independently from each other; however, in painting these two portraits Wiley and Sherald effectively re-envisioned the centuries-long tradition of representing political leaders. Before photography, painted portraits often served as the primary image of a U.S. president.
The two paintings present a striking contrast to the formality of earlier presidential portraits and images of first ladies. Both artists worked in close consultation with their sitters and used photographs as working tools as they planned their compositions. Wiley placed a seated President Obama—gazing forward to capture the viewer’s attention—against a backdrop of flowers with special significance in the life of the President and his family. Included are chrysanthemums as the official flower of Chicago; jasmine, which pays homage to the sitter’s birthplace and upbringing in Hawaii; and purple African lilies, which are native to Kenya. Sherald depicted the former First Lady against a light-blue background in a contemplative pose. Her dress, by Milly designer Michelle Smith, carries meaning as well, referring to both the modernist traditions of abstract art and the traditional patterned quilts of the Gee’s Bend community in Alabama.
Through the presentation of these now-iconic works by Wiley and Sherald, the exhibition contemplates how portraiture has given visual form to ideas of power, identity, status, and legacy throughout history. At the de Young, the roughly life-size portraits will be presented in a gallery adjacent to the museum’s American Art collection. The de Young’s holdings—one of the cornerstone collections of American art in the United States—include more than one-thousand paintings spanning from the 17th century to the present, and a number of portraits by historical artists.
About the Artists
The first Black artists commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint official portraits of a President and First Lady, Wiley and Sherald have throughout their careers consistently addressed the lacunae of Black representation in Western art history, using portraiture to explore complex issues of identity that transcend the individual pictured. The Obama Portraits are rendered in the artists’ signature styles.
Amy Sherald (b. 1973, Columbus, Georgia) is an artist based in the Greater New York area whose work documents contemporary African American experience in the United States through arresting, otherworldly portraits. Sherald subverts the medium of portraiture to tease out unexpected narratives, inviting viewers to engage in a more complex debate about accepted notions of race and representation, and to situate Black heritage centrally in the story of American art. In 2016, Sherald was the first woman and first African American to receive first prize in the triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition held by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Sherald has also received a 2019 Smithsonian Ingenuity Award. In addition to her painting practice, Sherald has worked for almost two decades alongside socially committed creative initiatives. In this capacity, she has taught art in prisons and developed art projects with teenagers.
Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977, Los Angeles) is a New York City and Senegal-based artist well known for creating vibrant, large-scale paintings of contemporary African Americans in the tradition of European portraiture. He earned his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and a Master of Fine Arts from the Yale University School of Art in 2001 and gained national recognition when he was still in his twenties. The Brooklyn Museum presented Wiley’s first major museum exhibition in 2004, and in 2015, organized “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic,” a mid-career retrospective that traveled to six cities nationwide. Wiley typically portrays people of color posing as famous figures in Western art. Through this practice, he challenges the visual rhetoric of power that is dominated by elite white men. In 2019, Wiley established Black Rock, a multidisciplinary artist-in-residence program in Dakar, Senegal.
The Obama Portraits Tour
The Obama Portraits are part of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, which holds the nation’s only complete collection of portraits of U.S. Presidents that is accessible to the public. The Portrait Gallery began commissioning presidential portraits in 1994, with George H.W. Bush. It commissioned its first portrait of a First Lady in 2006, with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Originally a five-city endeavor, which commenced in Chicago on June 18, 2021, “The Obama Portraits Tour” was extended by popular demand to include two additional cities with presentations by the de Young museum in San Francisco, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2022. “The Obama Portraits Tour” is organized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Support for the national tour has been generously provided by Bank of America. For more on the Portrait Gallery and the full tour schedule, visit npg.si.edu/obamaportraitstour.
The paintings by Wiley and Sherald are the subject of a richly illustrated book, The Obama Portraits (2020), which delves into the making of these two artworks. Published by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in partnership with Princeton University Press, the book, along with merchandise inspired by the artworks, can be purchased at the de Young Museum Store and online at shop.famsf.org.
The Obama Portraits Tour has been organized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. Support for the national tour has been generously provided by Bank of America. Support for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s presentation has been generously provided by: Presenting Sponsor, The Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund; Lead Sponsor, Ford Foundation; Major Support, Google, The Bernard Osher Foundation; Significant Support, AT&T, Rebecca and Cal Henderson; Generous Support, Bank of America, Sabrina Buell and Yves Béhar, Dagmar Dolby, Brook Hartzell and Tad Freese, Komal Shah and Gaurav Garg, Yieldstreet x Athena Art Finance.