An official portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama has been criticised for failing to accurately capture her appearance, though some art experts say that’s exactly the point.
The painting by African-American artist Amy Sherald was unveiled in Washington on Monday, immediately prompting a tide of disapproval from critics who felt it didn’t reflect Mrs Obama’s “beauty” and “energy”.
While Barack Obama praised Ms Sherald for capturing “the charm and hotness of the woman that I love”, The New York Times‘ art critic Holland Cotter was disappointed.
“To be honest, I was anticipating — hoping for — a bolder, more incisive image of the strong-voiced person I imagine this former first lady to be,” Mr Cotter wrote.
The shape of the dress, rising pyramidally upward, mountain-like, feels as if it were the real subject of the portrait. Mrs Obama’s face forms the composition’s peak, but could be almost anyone’s face, like a model’s face in a fashion spread.”
The Washington Post‘s art critic Philip Kennicott agreed with Mr Cotter that Mrs Obama’s dress was more of a focal point than her face – but argued this was an intentional choice by Ms Sherald.
“The dress forms a pyramid, with the face atop, in a way that suggests a protective carapace, hiding from view the first lady’s body and some of her femininity, which were targets of racist attack during her tenure in the East Wing,” Mr Kennicott said.
Eddie Ayres, host of Radio National’s The Art Hub, said: “[Mrs Obama] has got all these incredibly strong qualities and for me, looking at it on my little computer screen, it doesn’t look like they have been really captured.”
There were also plenty of armchair critics who weighed in on social media, slamming the portrait for looking “nothing like” the 54-year-old mother of two.
This is a beautiful portrait. It looks very little like Michelle Obama pic.twitter.com/1CsRrWIJtN
— Chris Cillizza (@CillizzaCNN) February 12, 2018
LOVE the new portrait of Michelle Obama pic.twitter.com/c4OXHhFOw6
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) February 12, 2018
That… portrait… does not look like Michelle Obama
— Monique Judge (@thejournalista) February 12, 2018
Michelle Obama's portrait was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery…
Aaaaand it looks nothing like her. pic.twitter.com/EQitllF47w
— Tim Young (@TimRunsHisMouth) February 12, 2018
Have to agree with my friend @KatCiano: the Michelle Obama portrait looks like someone put her photo into that Google app that matches your face to a painting.
— Inez Stepman (@InezFeltscher) February 12, 2018
Michelle Obama’s portrait is horrible don’t look a thing like her
— 𝔐𝔬𝔯𝔢𝔫𝔬 (@Moreno) February 12, 2018
But others argued that to truly appreciate Mrs Obama’s portrait you needed to examine previous work from the Baltimore-based Ms Sherald.
Ms Sherald, who was chosen by the Obamas from a shortlist of artists, typically paints her subjects in grayscale against a brightly-coloured background so she can, in her own words, “subversively comment about race without feeling as though I’m excluding the viewer”.
The 44-year-old artist also explained she wanted to create an “ideal” version of Mrs Obama based on a series of “youthful” photographs, in which the artist was struck by how much the former first lady looked like her daughter, Malia.
People snarking on the Michelle Obama portrait should really take 2 minutes to see it in the context of Amy Sherald's other portraits. pic.twitter.com/CbDYTFey4V
— Schooley (@Rschooley) February 12, 2018
Other works by Amy Sherald, the artist who did Michelle Obama’s portrait pic.twitter.com/44kfI4MaXC
— Bria Celest (@55mmbae) February 12, 2018
Amy Sherald’s incredible portrait of @MichelleObama. Sherald uses greyscale to paint skin tone in order to take away “color,” so her subjects can be seen for their personality and presence. pic.twitter.com/mLiLZSlNEU
— Kate Bennett (@KateBennett_DC) February 12, 2018
Australian artist Vincent Fantauzzo, who has won the People’s Choice Archibald Prize four times for his portraits, said Ms Sherald had nailed the brief.
“Whether a realist or conceptual interpretation, what is far more important is connecting with the subject,” Mr Fantauzzo explained.
“A portrait has far more to do with trust empathy and instincts. You can say everything in a singular image. I believe less is often more and you can’t please everyone. I think the artist has done a great job creating something unique.”
Daily Beast editor Tim Teeman urged people to relinquish the notion a good portrait has to be an exact likeness.
“There are so many photographs of the Obamas, why do people expect paintings simply to add to the plenitude of likenesses of them?” Mr Teeman wrote.
Vox culture writer Constance Grady argued the portraits of Mrs Obama and Mr Obama, who was painted against a background of leaves by New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley, were undeniably cool and a refreshing change from the more austere president and first lady portraits of days past.
“They’re portraits whose subjects care about aesthetics, who are thoughtful about the history of portraiture, and who have the personal charisma to carry the weight of that history on themselves,” Ms Grady wrote.
While Mr Obama’s portrait will hang permanently in the ‘America’s Presidents’ display at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Mrs Obama’s will only be hung there temporarily.