Kehinde Wiley Paints a President

Kehinde Wiley is a New York City-based portrait painter known for his depictions of African-American men of contemporary culture with incredibly ornate designs fit for royalty. Drawing inspiration from Old Master’s paintings and the average young man from Harlem’s 125th Street, Wiley mixes these two influences together to create a hybrid of sorts. One of Wiley’s most recent subjects, however, was anything but average. In October of 2017, Wiley was chosen by former President Barack Obama to paint his official portrait for the “American Presidents” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The painting, revealed Feb. 12, is the first presidential portrait painted by an African-American artist.

Starting with Gilbert Stuart’s first portrait of George Washington, it has been traditional for the POTUS to have an official portrait created during his time in office. While there have been many interpretations of our presidents, and some portraits are far more stylized than others (John F. Kennedy’s portrait for example), Wiley’s rendition of Obama will definitely stand out compared to the rest. Larger than life and bathed in warm light, the portrait depicts Obama with a stern, yet heroic expression. Backdropped with intricate, looping vines, Barack Obama sits on a wooden chair that seems to magically float amid the foliage. The colorful flowers speckled throughout the vines include the chrysanthemum, the flower of Chicago, and African blue lilies, among others.

This incredibly "nontraditional" portrait has garnered mixed reactions on social media, I believe largely due to the current politically charged nature of the United States. And, while not everyone is (or should be) an art critic, I am happy to see so much discussion from people who would not normally think very critically of the arts in general.

Other artists to look at: Jacques-Louis David, Artemisia Gentileschi, Amy Sherald


Written by Bryan Bethel