[Amy] Sherald, of course, is the artist behind the now famous official portrait of Michelle Obama that hangs in the Smithsonian. But when she was chosen for the commission, in 2016, she was still largely unknown. Kehinde Wiley, the artist selected to paint President Obama’s portrait, was an art-world star. His bold, heroic portraits of black subjects in poses that channel the Old Masters were on the must-have lists of savvy collectors. Sherald, on the other hand, was a 43-year-old African American artist who lived and worked in Baltimore. She painted vivid, head-on portraits of people she met on the street (and photographed)—“an American realist, painting American people doing American things,” she tells me. Her name had surfaced in front of the Obamas because she had recently won the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, a contest open to any professional artist working in the United States. She is the first woman and the first African American to win it.
Sherald’s painting of the former First Lady is larger than life and gloriously untraditional. Michelle sits facing us, chin resting on one hand, arms bare, rising from a mountainous, floor-length white skirt with geometric patterns in black, red, pink, and yellow. But the critical response was mixed. New York Times art critic Holland Cotter thought the dress outperformed the person. He wrote, “Mrs. Obama’s face . . . could be almost anyone’s face, like a model’s face in a fashion spread.” New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz disagreed. “She is grand, elegant, gorgeous, but her jackrabbit-quick wit is right there.” The most indelible reaction came from two-year-old Parker Curry, who was photographed standing in front of the painting, a look of awed enchantment on her face. “She’s a queen,” Parker told her mother; her reaction, and the painting itself, went viral. To me, the image captures not only the power and spirit of the subject, but also the hope and promise that Michelle Obama embodies, and art’s ability to encompass that.
Sherald was born and raised in Columbus, Georgia, the third of four children. Her father was a dentist, but when Sherald was seven, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which ended his practice. “We were doing well, and then we were not doing well, because there was no money,” she says. To make ends meet, her all-conquering mother, who had been a housewife, became a bank manager, and Sherald took over a lot of the housework and looked after her younger brother, Michael. “Our house had woods behind it, so we’d walk back there and explore and set traps for raccoons and do crazy stuff.” The family went to church every Saturday, a strict fundamentalist sect called the Worldwide Church of God, which forbids celebrating Christmas, Easter, or birthdays, and bans TV from Friday night to Saturday night.
Read her story here: Amy Sherald, Michelle Obama’s Portraitist, Readies her New York Debut