Pop Culture is Finding its Way into Presidential Portraiture

Art and history lovers should be very excited for the new portraits of former President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama. The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery has bestowed these important commissions upon Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. Wiley will paint the former president, and his style of portraiture will give us keen insight into how Obama wishes to frame his legacy. According to the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Wiley often depicts his subjects wearing hip-hop attire like hoodies and baggy, blue jeans and arranges them in postures once reserved for European aristocrats—a juxtaposition that helps the artist explore potent issues of race, class and power.

The choice of artist is bold. An American president being portrayed as a member of the nobility, maybe even an absolutist king? I can feel the Founding Fathers turning in their graves, but I love the idea. Portraits by the Old Masters incorporated rich symbolism which gives Wiley great latitude in forming his composition. Presidential portraits have become far too predictable in the United States. The choice of location is limited; if they are not painted in the Oval Office they are somewhere on the grounds of the White House with the rest of Washington, D.C. in the background. If the president is not sitting down, he is leaning on a desk or chair. A favored prop is his signature piece of legislation. It’s wonderful that Mr. Obama is breaking the mold and is embracing a young, innovative artist for this important work. Kehinde Wiley has painted the likenesses of Michael Jackson as King Philip II and Ice-T as Napoleon. So, who will Mr. Obama choose to be modeled after?

Here our historical imaginations can run wild. My top choices for a Barack Obama-turned European aristocrat are:

James I, King of England and Scotland

This rex pacficus, or king of peace, should be a serious contender. Not only does James’s long, lean figure mimic the former president’s, but there are two portrait options that would make excellent models for Wiley.

Option number one is a painting by John de Critz. While there is a chair behind James, he stands without support. Obama was one of our youngest presidents, and ought to be portrayed with vitality and energy, not leaning out of weariness from the job like his predecessors. Another reason why I favor the de Critz portrait as a model is its subdued background. Wiley’s portraits often possess bold, brightly colored backgrounds in floral patterns. This is perhaps too daring for a presidential likeness. A subtle paisley would, however, match the artist’s aesthetic while still being reverent enough for a former leader of the United States. To match James in the accessories game, Obama need look no further than his own Nobel Peace Prize medal to mimic the king and cement himself as a rex pacificus.


Option number two would be a bolder choice as it would make Obama’s legacy the focal point. The Peaceful Reign of James I is part of a series of portraits which adorn the ceiling of the Banqueting House in the Palace of Whitehall in London. In it, James is protecting Plenty so that she might receive Peace. Here our cynical sides can show (how did Obamacare and North Korea work out?), but the beauty of portraiture is seeing how props speak for the sitter. If Obama and Wiley want to explicitly lay out the president’s legacy, The Peaceful Reign is a brilliant candidate.

Charles I

The son of the aforementioned James, this choice isn’t politically motivated. Charles I in Three Positions by Van Dyck could be an interesting exposé on the many sides of a president. Wiley could explore Obama as a leader, father, and citizen, allowing the viewer to evaluate the man beyond his office.

Federico II Gonzaga

In this portrait by Titian, Federico is painted with a dog which symbolizes faithfulness. How good would Obama and Bo look together? Presidents have long favored their dogs; it’s about time man’s best friend made it into a portrait.

I highly recommend searching Kehinde Wiley’s portraits. If you love history and popular culture, you will enjoy his creative images.