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A Sunday Break : Portraits, Presidents, and First Ladies …

The portraits of President Obama and the First Lady have been unveiled at the Smithsonian National Gallery this week. I know this news is well-known and may produce varied reaction. But I have thoughts on the question of presidential portraits. 

I take President James A Garfield Class of 1856 as a starting point:

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 12.12.56 PM This is the official White House portrait done by a popular artist of the day. Garfield’s considerable talents may or may not be visible in this conservative style. Remember, he did not want to run for president and was surprised at the convention when in a speech he was making in support of another candidate, he asked an impassioned question: “What do we want?” and the answer was “Garfield”





And now ‘Compare and Contrast. as the writing on the board went in days of yore.

    Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 12.27.39 PM  obama-portrait-pot

President Roosevelt is by John Singer Sargent, portrayer of society in the Gilded Age. President Obama’s portrait is by Kihinde Wiley. Much has been said about the changes in society and attitudes towards portraying our presidents. You can make your own compare and contrast.

I add as a thought that President Teddy Roosevelt did not like the portrait painted by the French very successful painter of the rich and/or famous Theobold Cartran. This official portrait was a gift from the French Ambassador. Roosevelt burned it.

But Chartran had far better luck with his portrait of First Lady Edith Roosevelt. Here is another ‘compare and contrast’ …two First Ladies: Edith Roosevelt and Michelle Obama. First Lady Obama’s portrait by Amy Sherald.


Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 12.25.29 PM   Obamas-Portrait-front

 The two portraits vary in style, yet each capture the grace, ease, and intelligence of these two women.The use of the dresses is so important to both portraits! Mrs Roosevelt is credited with spurring on the establishment of the National Gallery where these are on display.

What are presidential portraits supposed to do? In these new times, a move toward capturing the energy of the sitter may become more important than a more conventional and expected view. Who was the President? What do we see? Why do we see it?

Which of course leads me to this thought … how will an artist choose to capture the energy of the 45th president and his First Lady?


Now that most of Sunday has past, even here in Pacific Time, it is time to turn in your blue book (s).

In order to check yourselves against others views, please go to Comments Two and Four for three interesting reviews, one by a constant contributor.







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#1 Comment By frank uible On February 18, 2018 @ 5:57 am

Swart, are you and I playing table tennis with each other?

#2 Comment By JCD 🏝️ On February 18, 2018 @ 8:18 pm

I think my interest in oil painting is starting to pay-off.

I know enough, for example, to see that Obama’s hands are out of proportion to his body (too large). There is also a severe anatomical problem with this left hand. Notice the weird fold of skin and muscle next to his pinky finger. No normal human hand looks like that.

This is the work of a second-rate artist. It looks to me like the artist was trying to draw a thumb tucked under there.

Also notice the color of the light. It is different on Obama’s head versus his hands. This is just inexcusable, low-quality work.

I don’t see how you can justify annoying mistakes like this…even if they are supposed to be part of some over arching message like it is cool and significant to have deviant, dopey looking portraits of America’s first (half) black president.

The portrait of Mrs. Obama has also been condemned, rightfully, for failing to provide an accurate portrayal of her…except, perhaps, for her arms.

If the Obamas were so dumb to commission and accept art this poorly executed, then their liberal/leftist supporters should ask what else have this couple been dumb about?

For my take on young Obama and the recent David J. Garrow presidential biography, see https://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2017/05/waiting_for_garrow_new_obama_biography_due_this_week.html

#3 Comment By anon On February 18, 2018 @ 11:01 pm

Thanks for the insight JCD. Glad you know enough to condemn this painting — it really pales in comparison to these pieces I assume you lifted from a high school art show. Or did you awkwardly plug what I assume is your face at the 0:02 mark because they’re yours?


#4 Comment By Dick Swart On February 18, 2018 @ 11:29 pm

JCD and I exchange shots of what we are doing. John has really moved forward to including his own sense of style and a technique that gives a sense of motion to his work. John has been very kind in responding to my scrawls.

Here is a review of both paintings by Philip Kennicut, the Pulitzer Prize winning Art and Architecture Editor of the Washington Post.

Here is an excerpt from it relevant to JCD’s comments above:

The artists, chosen by the Obamas, have combined traditional representation with elements that underscore the complexity of their subjects, and the historic fact of their political rise. And both painters have managed to create compelling likenesses without sacrificing key aspects of their signature styles. The Obamas took a significant chance on both artists and were rewarded with powerful images that will shake up the expectations and assumptions of visitors to the traditionally button-down presidential galleries.


Here also is the review from the New York Times:


#5 Comment By frank uible On February 19, 2018 @ 4:58 am

99 44/100% of current Americans will approve or disapprove of the portraits of the Obamas primarily for reasons other than their painting techniques.

#6 Comment By Dick Swart ’56 On March 7, 2018 @ 8:16 am