Barack and Michelle Obama don’t like to waste an opportunity, in word or action, to make larger points about contemporary life and culture.  In that vein, their choices of artists for their official portraits in the in the collection of The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery shine a spotlight on the state of American art. One is an established figurative painter, the other is relatively unknown and a possible rising art-world star.  Both are African-American.

Amy Sherald first prize winner of the The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2016 is painting Michelle Obama’s official likeness. She is shown here with her prize winning portrait, “Miss Everything” on Friday, March 11, 2016 at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. (Paul Morigi/AP Images for National Portrait Gallery)

In their selection of Kehinde Wiley, for Mr. Obama’s likeness, and Amy Sherald for Mrs. Obama’s, announced Friday, the Obama’s continue to highlight the work of contemporary and modern African-American artists, as they so often did with the artworks they chose to live with in the White House, by Glenn Ligon, Alma Thomas and William H. Johnson, among others.  Their choices then and now reflect the Obama’s instincts for balancing the expected and the surprising, and for being alert to painting’s pertinence to the moment.  More…