Obama portrait: Is this modern? Do you LIKE this?

Obama portrait

I’m still kinda buggin’ in reaction to the Obama portrait unveiled yesterday.

As I said on Twitter last night:

Yeah, it looks like him. But what is this, a Grateful Dead album cover? Why does he seem to be floating in the middle of a hedge or something (specifically, the 12-foot-high hedge of hibiscus that ran the length of our backyard in Hawaii in 1971… except… the flowers are different), with leaves and flowers threatening to envelop him?

Barry in the Sky with Blossoms?

I guess you’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus.

As I told Bryan in a subsequent Twitter discussion, this really brings out my Tory sensibilities. Jack Donaghy on “30 Rock” once said:

A horse is one of only three appropriate subjects for a painting, along with ships with sails, and men holding up swords while staring off into the distance.

Hear, hear. And certainly not something from the fevered imaginings of Timothy Leary. Harrumph!…

"LOOK at them!" cried the emperor. This is nonsense!"

“LOOK at them!” cried the emperor. This is nonsense!”

73 thoughts on “Obama portrait: Is this modern? Do you LIKE this?

  1. Mark Stewart

    I don’t know what to make of the floating chair, coyly tucking into a green, leafy wall. I just don’t.

    However, this has to be the first Presidential portrait without a tie. Still with the blue power suit and the watch – but really, shouldn’t we see the cell phone profile inside the jacket pocket if it’s to be tie-less?

    I also think they should do portraits before the inauguration as well; so we can see the toll the position takes. What they give.

  2. Bryan Caskey

    It’s really weird. I don’t like the no-tie, weird hands (what’s going on with his left hand?) leafy wall portrait. It’s just weird. I think this is some sort of weird attempt to be different that hits the wrong note. It’s not “Presidential”.

    I wonder if Obama likes it, or if he secretly wants to have it burned like Lady Churchill had the Sutherland portrait of Churchill burned.

      1. Richard

        … and yes I do read AR15.com, their are typically ten thousand or more readers on at any given time. I wonder if there’s a deplorables.com website???

  3. Doug Ross

    The one of Michelle Obama is worse.

    But you can’t criticize it… you have to bend over backwards to make sure no one is offended. Because if you don’t like it, you are obviously….

    1. Mark Stewart

      I think I agree. These are very good as portraits. They present their subject with a point of view.

      Michelle Obama’s certainly was not painted by a high schooler; it is a well thought out conception of a woman and her place in time.

      While I don’t understand the way his “wall” is both background and foreground, that’s more for me to try to understand. There is a formal reason it exists in the artist’s conception, that’s clear. Formal as in form, but maybe also as projection? IDK. On the other hand, it does seem like Obama’s hand in the painting is likely a subtle troll of Donald Trump.

      The next National Gallery portrait? I’d vote for a large Cheeto, shaded in the glaring sunlight, lying on a closely mowed green – with the silica shining through between the blades.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Well, yeah — because it’s just a portrait of a lady. It doesn’t carry the freight of a Portrait of the President of the United States.

          Although as ladies’ portraits go, I prefer the style of, say, John Singer Sargent. (And no, not because his ladies were white, even eerily super-white.)

          This one looks like the artist wanted to be Klimt, but didn’t quite have the nerve to go that far

          See? I’m not a complete philistine. I CAN make limited artistic allusions, as long as we stick to really, really famous artists…

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          The reason why this concerns me right now is because I care about the dignity of the office, and we are currently facing our greatest crisis in that regard.

          Obama was our 44th and last normal, dignified president. His portrait should reflect that.

          If you’re going to have a departure from the stylistic norm, save that for Trump. Is the artist who did the Bazooka Joe comics in the bubble-gum wrappers still around?…

          1. Claus2

            “Obama was our 44th and last normal, dignified president. His portrait should reflect that.”

            Ha… dignified, as in let’s give the Queen of England an iPod dignified.

            His portrait reflects exactly who he is… a dainty flower sitting in a field of weeds.

            Michelle’s looks like one of those paint by number pictures that you had as a kid… which turned out looking more like a coloring book picture.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Barack Obama is one of the most poised, dignified people I’ve ever met in my life.

              The artist captured that. But then took away from it with the foliage…

              1. Claus2

                The picture makes me wonder what the artist was thinking when he painted Obama’s left hand… six fingers and as long as his forearm.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  I know what you’re talking about, but there aren’t six fingers. In fact, you can only see four.

                  As for the length — I don’t usually remember handshakes in any detail, but I remember being struck by how long and slender — almost like E.T. — his hand was. So that’s pretty much accurate…

                  As for the relationship to the forearm… I don’t have especially long hands or fingers, but I just laid my right hand down on my left forearm, and it’s only about two inches shorter…

                2. Richard

                  “I know what you’re talking about, but there aren’t six fingers. In fact, you can only see four.”

                  His pinky finger looks like a ring finger and the pinky is underneath… that would be five fingers and a thumb… which technically is a finger.

                3. Scout

                  You are assuming his pinky finger is underneath, yet obviously it is not since he already has 4 fingers showing. The bulge of muscle on the side of his hand makes it look like the pinky should be folded under. Maybe he just has weird bulgy muscles on the sides of his palms.

      1. Richard

        “The next National Gallery portrait? I’d vote for a large Cheeto, shaded in the glaring sunlight, lying on a closely mowed green – with the silica shining through between the blades.”

        Fortunately it’s not your decision.

        For those interested it’ll probably be something like this:

        Mark, yes I also read redd.it on occasion.

  4. Norm Ivey

    In his, the hedges annoy me. Not just because they are both behind and in front of him and the chair, which throws off the depth, but because they have two different flowers on them. Then there’s a group of bright green leaves on each side of his head that are so identical that it looks more like wallpaper than a plant. But the likeness of the president himself is very good.

    Her portrait looks like it was done by a high-schooler.

        1. Norm Ivey

          Thanks. That helps. I still don’t like the background, but at least there’s a point to that aspect.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I thought of wallpaper, too. Specifically, a certain style of wallpaper called… Dang! My wife has told me several times what it’s called…

      We have it in our kitchen, put there by the previous owners. It’s kind of trippy, especially if you take a photo of yourself in front of it and then run it through a Prisma filter, as I did here a while back…


  5. Bryan Caskey

    To go to the opposite end of the spectrum, here are the top five Presidential portraits:

    1. Thomas Jefferson I like the simplicity and confidence expressed. In my opinion, this is the best-all around portrait. Everything you need, nothing extraneous to distract.

    2. Franklin Pierce Going the other direction, I like the use of context, with the hand on the papers. It looks like we just walked in on him conducting affairs of state.

    3. Teddy Roosevelt Confidence, understatement, and power. A great one. I like that it looks like he’s at home, rather than at the White House.

    4. Ike
    This one I really like. It’s the “friendly” Ike, not the WWII Supreme Allied Commander. He’s caught in a moment of intimacy here, rather than formality.

    5. JFK
    A classic, showing the weight of the office and how decisions bear down on a President.

    Just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

    1. Norm Ivey

      I agree with JFK and Jefferson. Those are definitely the two best. I kinda like Andrew Jackson’s. It’s spooky. It’s just missing Dracula’s Castle in the background. And I like the way Truman and LBJ have the Capitol in their backgrounds. It tells you a little more about them.

  6. Harry Harris

    I don’t like it. I, too, think Michelle’s is worse, and I couldn’t tell it’s her if not told so.

  7. Bart

    My only way of evaluating the official portrait is if Obama likes it, that is good enough for me. It is a departure from traditional but Obama was not necessarily bound to the traditional especially when one considers his place in history as the first POTUS of color. As for Michelle’s portrait, again, if she likes it, that is all that matters.

    On a lighter note, years ago Mad Magazine depicted the unveiling of GWB’s portrait and it was Al Gore’s portrait unveiled, not GWB’s. I know bud will like the irony and humor Mad Magazine was and may still be noted for.

  8. Doug Ross

    The portraits of the Obamas seem to reflect the age we live in now – they are more about the artist than the subject. We’re supposed to recognize the artist for his/her personal vision of expressing their feelings than reflect on the period the person was in the White House.

    It’s basically a selfie with the camera pointed at someone else.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      YES! That’s very insightful, Doug. It IS about the artist. And when it comes to a presidential portrait, I don’t WANT the artist intruding.

      I’m reminded of Tom Wolfe’s book, The Painted Word. Basically, it said that modern art had gotten to the point that it wasn’t about the picture, or the subject. Modern art had become about the theory, and if you weren’t schooled in the artist’s theory then you couldn’t possibly appreciate the work.

      A crasser term for it is B.S….

      I like being familiar with concepts such as, say, chiaroscuro. But I don’t want to HAVE to know those things in order to appreciate a painting…

      1. Mr. Smith

        What Wolfe was talking about has nothing to do with these portraits. All artists put their own mark on their works. And a lot of them make use of symbolism, like the flowers in Obama’s portrait, or the chair and his pose. Wolfe was skewering non-representational art in which the idea in the artist’s head is more important than what’s on the canvas. That’s obviously not the case here.

        1. Bryan Caskey

          “Wolfe was skewering non-representational art in which the idea in the artist’s head is more important than what’s on the canvas. That’s obviously not the case here.

          Is it?

          1. Mr. Smith

            Have you read Wolfe’s book?

            If you think these portraits are abstract art, then you need to take a basic course in art history.

            As for presidential portraits:

            The Pierce portrait is full of symbolism: the brass sphinx figurine, the books under the table and in particular the papers his hand is lying on.

            The Kennedy portrait is more abstract in composition than Obama’s. And his downward gaze symbolizes his tragic end more than his personality or the character of his presidency.

            Oh, and as for open collars in presidential portraits, G.W. Bush started that.

            1. Bryan Caskey

              “Have you read Wolfe’s book?”


              “If you think these portraits are abstract art, then you need to take a basic course in art history.”

              I don’t believe I ever said they were abstract art. I’m pretty sure I just called them “weird”. In any event, I don’t accept the premise that Wolfe’s thesis in The Painted Word only applies to purely abstract art.

              “The Pierce portrait is full of symbolism: the brass sphinx figurine, the books under the table and in particular the papers his hand is lying on.”

              I don’t have any problem with symbolism in a Presidential portrait. Obama could have done that to good effect. He could have had a very traditional Presidential portrait done that included some symbol of his healthcare law. I don’t even mind the symbolic use of flowers used in the current portrait. What I object to is the overall general discarding of the traditional Presidential portrait’s tone and style. I would have preferred a more traditional Presidential portrait. But hey, I’m a traditional guy. As Brad likes to say it’s a “Tory sensibility”.

              “The Kennedy portrait is more abstract in composition than Obama’s.”

              I would say it’s more impressionist than abstract, but I see your general point. Kennedy’s portrait ain’t weird, though, it’s got that going for it.

              Oh, and as for open collars in presidential portraits, G.W. Bush started that.

              We must be looking at different portraits. whitehousehistory.org has George W. Bush’s official portrait as this:

    2. Mark Stewart

      As if this hasn’t been happening across all of recorded history…

      That’s why paintings become art – and become valuable, both as social commentary and as status symbols.

      1. Richard

        I wonder if there’s a modern day Picasso who could have painted Barry and Michelle’s official portraits?

      2. Doug Ross

        There’s a difference between paintings as art and official Presidential portraits. The paintings of the Obamas would be appropriate in the Obama Presidential Library when it is built. As an official portrait to be displayed in the White House, they seem just a little too self-indulgent for the artist’s sake. But at least the one of Barack demonstrates more artistic prowess than the one of Michelle. That one isn’t a portrait, it’s an interpretation of her. Doesn’t even look like her.

        1. Mark Stewart

          These aren’t going in the White House, Doug. These were commissioned by the National Gallery. You can see them any day on the Mall, along with the other 43 Presidential portraits.

          1. Doug Ross

            I read that Presidents can select portraits to display in the White House.

            From Wikipedia:
            “Presidents often display the official portraits of other presidents whom they admire in the Oval Office or elsewhere around the White House, loaned from the National Portrait Gallery.?

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              And Trump decided to display Andrew Jackson. Which is fitting, since I thought his election in 1828, in which he beat the infinitely better qualified John Quincy Adams, was the greatest electoral disaster in our history… until 2016…

              Let me be clear: Jackson was MUCH better qualified for the office than Trump. The tragedy that time was Adams losing. The tragedy this time wasn’t Hillary Clinton losing — things would have been miserable with her in the White House, since Republicans hate her so much. The tragedy this time was Trump winning, which degraded the presidency worse than any previous event in our history…

  9. bud

    I love the idea of not wearing a tie. It’s high time we get rid of that dreadful garment. Otherwise this portrait is just awful. My first impression was that Obama is sitting on the toilet.

    1. Bart

      “My first impression was that Obama is sitting on the toilet.”

      Oh my, the endless possibilities of playing around with that comment is so tempting. But, decorum demands restraint.

        1. Mark Stewart

          The point of art is to provoke contemplation and discussion. Seems clear both portraits have succeeded – at least in the short term.

          1. Dave


            So, umm, where’s the understanding of Kehinde Wiley’s work (or the slightest awareness of it) in the comments in this thread? Wiley’s not some unknown artist, he’s one of the best-known modern portrait artists in the world. His art is designed to highlight the absence of African Americans, and particularly African American men, in the Western canon of portraiture by placing his African American subjects in classical poses that we would see in the works of the Grand Masters. By doing so, he’s simultaneously highlighting the absence of African Americans in classic Western portraiture and highlighting that they’re African American.

            One way he does this is by taking standard tropes of classic portrait painting and abstracting them. One of the elements of the Western portraiture canon is placing subjects in natural settings. By stylizing the background in the Obama painting and other portraits he’s painted, he’s trying to take the subject out of his or her natural setting and more firmly juxtaposing the absence of such figures from the Western canon.

            Honestly, I can’t be the only person in this entire thread who has any knowledge of Wiley’s work or his intentions in painting it. But it would seem so.

            1. Doug Ross

              Once again, it’s supposed to be about the President, not the artist. That you think Wiley is even a moderately well known painter is pretty odd.

              1. Mark Stewart

                No, Doug. Art is about putting an imprint on history, of shaping conceptions and posing challenging questions.

                Art is a lense on society; what do we see and how do we see it? Think of it? Feel it?

                1. Richard

                  I know I’ll remember Obama sitting in a weed patch for a while. That and the gothic painting of a woman who’s supposed to be Michelle Obama yet looks nothing like her.

                2. Doug Ross

                  So if you went to an artist and asked for a portrait to place in your business, you would accept whatever the artist decided to put on canvas?

                  I’ll stick with my belief that an official Presidential portrait should be about the subject and not the interpretation of a single artist’s view. Not saying that artists shouldn’t create anything they’d like for their own purposes.. but in this case, the parameters of creativity should be limited. Remove the distracting background from the Obama painting and it would be fine. Not so for Michelle’s, though. That’s just poor technique masked by “flair”.

            2. Mark Stewart

              The artist is deconstructing and reimagining tradition and perspective. It’s not surprising that the majority of people have a hard time with it. But it certainly highlights the value of open-mindedness and a willingness to explore other viewpoints.

            3. Brad Warthen Post author

              Yep, Dave. You are among the elect. I know Wile E. Coyote. And I used to work with a copyeditor named Judith Wylie; good friend of mine.

              But I’m drawing a blank on this guy.

              And again… as to “placing his African American subjects in classical poses that we would see in the works of the Grand Masters”… I’ve been puzzled ever since I read that this pose was supposed to evoke this painting of Lincoln. But it doesn’t. The postures, the expressions, pretty much everything is different except that both are sitting in somewhat similar chairs.

              You know what the way he’s sitting reminds ME of? The way Trump sits in photo ops with foreign leaders. There’s been a lot of comments in the past year on that (with some noting that it, too, looks like a man sitting on a toilet), and it seems if the artist was trying to evoke anything, it would be that. But I have no idea why he’d want to do that…

    1. Phillip

      actually now that I look at the Taylor portrait more closely, the face shows character but the hand is awful, doesn’t look human at all!

  10. Burl Burlingame

    It cracks me up that Brad’svision of “modern, avant-garde” painting is one done a half-century ago.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’m like the Martian Old Ones in Stranger in a Strange Land (which we read in Mrs. Burchard’s class at Radford). I may take a century or so to fully grok a new thing. No hurry…

  11. Scout

    It looks like it should be symbolic but I can’t come up with anything immediately obvious that sitting in front of a hedge should symbolize. A hedge is made of natural elements but shaped and manicured by men. But then this one has more than one kind of flower in it, which is off putting – is that on purpose or is it overgrown with wild invasive elements infiltrating the manicured part.

    The overwhelming impression I keep coming back to, probably because of the realism, is that if I was sitting in a chair pushed up that close into a hedge, I would be paranoid that little spiders and mites might drop onto me or get on my neck or down my shirt.

    The whole effect is kind of unsettling. Yet he seems grounded and unbothered in the midst of it. Maybe it is a metaphor for his presidency. He did put up with a lot while maintaining a sense of decency of calm.

Comments are closed.