Michelle Obama’s portrait is a radical and defiant gesture to critics

The former First Lady breaks convention with elegance again.
The former First Lady breaks convention with elegance again.
Image: Amy Sherald
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This morning, the Obamas unveiled their official portraits. They will be displayed in the National Portrait Gallery alongside those of other American presidents and luminaries like Beyoncé and the four female justices of the Supreme Court.

While Barack Obama’s portrait was painted by New York City-based Kehinde Wiley, the former First Lady selected Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald to paint hers. In it, Obama wears a custom sleeveless gown by American fashion designer Michelle Smith of Milly. She looks pensive, gazing directly at the viewer while her posture remains relaxed, her head resting against her hand.

“Mr. Wiley depicts Mr. Obama not as a self-assured, standard-issue bureaucrat, but as an alert and troubled thinker,” Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times. “Ms. Sherald’s image of Mrs. Obama overemphasizes an element of couturial spectacle, but also projects a rock-solid cool.” But Cotter and other critics also wished for a slightly bolder representation of Obama, who is the first and only black First Lady, and a Harvard-educated lawyer. “To be honest, I was anticipating — hoping for — a bolder, more incisive image of the strong-voiced person I imagine this former first lady to be,” Cotter wrote.

But there is boldness if you look at Obama’s famously toned arms.

In 2009, when Obama went sleeveless in a black Michael Kors dress for her first official portrait, the Chicago Tribune received hundreds of responses from readers with strong opinions about Obama’s bare arms. “Most of the complaints centered on the dress conveying a sense of informality on a serious occasion,” the paper’s style reporter Wendy Donahue said. “She’s kind of faced some criticism for that in the past where people have said maybe [her clothing is] distracting from the central point, from what is going on.” (The current First Lady, Melania Trump, who has admitted to admiring Obama, uses flamboyant sleeves to set herself apart from her predecessor.)

In Sherald’s painting, Obama’s triceps and biceps are positioned so that you get a full look at them before cresting at her face. The bare-armed portrait is a radical and defiant gesture to the critics who thought Obama was dressed too inappropriately for official state business. She looks serene, almost retreating into her billowing graphic-print gown, but her arms are bold, toned, and bare—a testament to the former First Lady’s 5:30am workouts and unwavering sense of self.