The Obamas returned to the White House on Wednesday — their first visit together since moving out in 2017 — for the unveiling of their “Official Portraits.”
These are not, for reference, the same portraits that were commissioned by the National Gallery in 2018, the ones that went on a five-city tour across the country in what they called, aptly, “The Obama Portraits Tour.” Those pictures gave Barack a leafy backdrop and Michelle a distinctly voluminous gown. These are new, much blander paintings:
The new pieces were commissioned by the White House Historical Association to join the White House collection, alongside paintings of other former First Families, like the pair of George and Laura Bush that the Obamas unveiled in 2012. It is customary for the White House to honor its past occupants like this, though Trump skipped over the procedure during his presidency and COVID delayed this one by some two and a half years.
As a whole, the collection tends to go for a specific look: gold frames, a classic contrapposto, and conventionally realist figuration — though the post-Reagan renderings took some facial liberties — with any attempt at abstraction relegated to the blurry background. Departures from the typical formula tend to speak directly to the president’s personality, or at least the artist’s idea of it. Take Lincoln’s, which has him posing like The Thinker, or Nixon’s, which makes him look meaner, like he’s about to give some teen a good grounding. Bush Jr.’s portrait seems to share an illustration style with the kids show, Arthur, a choice that needs little elaboration, and Trump doesn’t have one, which makes its own kind of sense.
The Obamas’ likenesses are vaguely revealing in that respect. Barack’s looks like a stock photo you’d find in a prefab frame. It is hyperrealistic to the point that it plausibly could have been traced from an actual photograph. Obama himself is smizing in a black suit and white tie straight out of junior prom, against a backdrop so vacant it seems computer rendered. The vibe is: grade-school picture day step-and-repeat.
Michelle’s is more textured, but in the wrong ways. Her light-blue dress clashes with the red couch she’s sitting on, which in turn clashes with the peach wall paint. What could it mean? Metaphor for a torn country? Or a symbol of how our differences can bring us together? Hard to say. She is looking toned as usual, but something’s off in the face. The vibe is: fan art scrounged from Tumblr.
It’s fitting for a family that has all but eschewed politics to serve as celebrity figureheads, guiding their hordes of stans towards summer playlists rather than, say, court reform. But don’t bother with another cross country tour; no one needs to see these up close.