When the National Portrait Gallery in Washington unveiled the Obama's official portraits on Monday, the museum also pulled back the curtain on a critically-acclaimed artist living in Baltimore. Amy Sherald painted Michelle Obama's portrait after being chosen out of a group of 20 artists. And the final result shows what the first lady may have been looking for: a woman who — in the artist's own words — paints Americans with the goal of creating "an archetype" that is "bigger, more symbolic" than her models.
"I paint American people, and I tell American stories through the paintings I create," Sherald said at the unveiling. She and Kehinde Wiley, who painted Barack Obama, are the first black artists to paint official National Portrait Gallery portraits of a president or a first lady.
It's easy to see how Sherald's goal of creating something symbolic was achieved with Michelle Obama's portrait. As Sherald put it:
Mrs. Obama, you are omnipresent. You exist in our minds and hearts because we can see ourselves in you.
Sherald is originally from Columbus, Georgia, part of a prominent black family in that town; her father was a dentist and her great-uncle owned a funeral home. After majoring in pre-med, quitting and waiting tables, and then taking care of family, she went back to art, something she had first fallen in love with in Catholic school.
She explained to her hometown paper, the Ledger-Inquirer, her philosophy on painting:
I always say, "I didn't get into this not to be in a museum." The only reason that I wanted to do this is because I want to change people's expectations as to what they may see when they walk into an institution that tells them what is valuable and to validate peoples' existence in so many ways.
With her portrait of Michelle Obama, there's no doubt that she will in fact land in a big-name museum beyond the National Portrait Gallery. In May, she will open her own show at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
As for working with Obama, Sherald didn't share much in advance of the unveiling. But typically she would take a picture of her subjects in clothes that she buys or picks from their closet. Then she works off the photo, always with natural lighting, to produce the painting.
As for Sherald's goal of creating an archetype, it might have been a bit easier with the former first lady as a subject.
"She's an archetype that a lot of women can relate to — no matter shape, size, race or color," Sherald told The New York Times last fall. "We see our best selves in her."
One thing that you'll notice in the portrait of Obama is that her skin is painted gray. Sherald says it's how she comments on race — "a way for me to subversively comment about race without feeling as though I’m excluding the viewer."
While Sherald and Wiley were the first black artists to have the honor of painting presidential pieces commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, Bill and Hillary Clinton first hired a black artist, Simmie Knox, to do an official presidential portrait back in the '90s; however, that painting was hung in the White House.
Sherald's art career almost ended in 2012 when she collapsed on the floor of a pharmacy. She ended up getting a heart transplant and spending a year in recovery.
Now, six years later at age 44, you would hardly believe it. As she unveiled her latest the piece of country's first black first lady, she was full of energy. Or as Obama describes her:
She was fly and poised. She had this lightness and freshness of personality.