Portraiture imparts humanity and dignity, from which spring inspiration and motivation
Portraiture had a moment this week, first with the unveiling of the White House portraits of the 44th President Barack H. Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, and with the death of Queen Elizabeth whose visage has been captured likely millions of times over her lifetime.
Portraiture stands apart from other genres of art as it marks the intersection between portrait, biography and history. “They are more than artworks; when people look at portraits, they think they are encountering that person,” says Alison Smith, chief curator at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
The official White House portraits are distinct from the ones commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, which were unveiled in 2018; Kehinde Wiley painted President Obama, Amy Sherald Mrs. Obama. Those widely acclaimed paintings have toured the nation. Most importantly, they will be accessible to people from across the globe, while the White House portraits will be seen only by a much smaller universe.
The White House portraits form a collection all their own, and they tend toward more traditional, realistic oil paintings, as do the new ones of the Obamas. The portraits, commissioned by the White House Historical Association, had been a well-kept secret, along with the identity of their artists: Robert McCurdy, who painted the former president, and Sharon Sprung, who painted the former first lady. Since the Carter administration, former presidents have returned to the White House for an unveiling ceremony when their portraits are finished. In case of the Obamas the unveiling happened during the Biden administration.
The Obamas interviewed the artists alongside Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Of the work Michelle Obama said, “… if the two of us can end up on the walls of the most famous address in the world, then again it is so important for every young kid who is doubting themselves to believe that they can, too,” said the former first lady. “That is what this country is about.”
The visage of the Queen of England, who passed away this week at 96, has been captured on canvas by everyone from Andy Warhol to artist Oluwole Omofemi. Omofemi’s work was chosen for this year’s commemorative Platinum Jubilee cover of Tatler Magazine. His source was a photograph of a 1950s portrait of the Queen Elizabeth holding a fan. The oil on canvas is done in the artists pop-art palette. It will be included in a specially curated Sotheby’s exhibition Power & Image: Royal Portraiture & Iconography, along with one of Andy Warhol’s screen-prints from his 1985 Reigning Queens portfolio.
Portraiture tells us fundamental truths about humanity and identity, and offers us inspiration and motivation. And no matter if we love the artists, of subscribe to the politics of the subject, the imagery remains powerful.
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