If You’re a Fan of Obama’s Presidential Portrait, You Should Plan a Trip to the MAM

A work by Kehinde Wiley – who painted President Obama’s official White House portrait – hangs in the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Trump isn’t the only POTUS making headlines this week.

Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled their official White House portraits during a ceremony at the National Gallery on Monday. Portrait unveilings are typically staid affairs: well-dressed Washingtonians politely applaud large oil paintings of figures realistically depicted standing or sitting against subdued backgrounds. But the ceremony this year was anything but typical.

The Obamas commissioned Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald to paint their portraits. Wiley (who painted the former president) and Sherald (who painted the former first lady) are the first African American artists to receive such a commission. Both often tackle racial issues in their work, and both paint in decidedly idiosyncratic styles.

Wiley, for instance, chose to depict the former president seated against a riotously colored wall of foliage reminiscent of Rococo-era patterning. Obama appears without a tie, arms folded tight across his chest, staring intensely at the viewer.

Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley
“Barack Obama” by Kehinde Wiley, oil on canvas, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The National Portrait Gallery is grateful to the following lead donors for their support of the Obama portraits: Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg; Judith Kern and Kent Whealy; Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia.

The painting is far more provocative than any other presidential portrait commissioned to date. And it’s been garnering strong reactions, both positive and negative. Sean Hannity tweeted that the work was rife with “inappropriate sexual innuendo” and shared a link to an article written by his staffers suggesting that Wiley painted “secret sperm” into many of his works. Others, including many creative types, have praised Wiley’s bold point of view.

We can count the curatorial team at the Milwaukee Art Museum among that latter camp. The MAM acquired one of Wiley’s works, currently on display in the museum’s contemporary wing, more than a decade ago. And Margaret Anderra, interim chief curator and contemporary curator, applauds Obama for choosing to work with the artist.

St Dionysus
“St. Dionysus,” 2006. Oil on canvas with carved and painted frame. 72 × 60 in. (182.88 × 152.4 cm). Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of the African American Art Alliance in honor of their 15th Anniversary, with additional support from Valerie A. Childrey, MD, and Sande Robinson, M2006.16. Photographer credit: John R. Glembin.

“We were thrilled to hear that Kehinde Wiley was chosen to create the portrait of Barack Obama for the National Portrait Gallery,” she says. “Wiley is an innovative painter who delves deeply into the history of art while exploring notions of power and fame. The work we acquired for our collection in 2006, St. Dionysus, is similar in composition to the presidential portrait of Barack Obama and shares key elements of Wiley’s signature style, including a larger-than-life central figure who directly gazes out at the viewer and a mesmerizing decorative pattern that aggressively emerges from the background into the foreground. We are proud to have a work by the artist on view in Milwaukee so that the community can see the majestic nature of Wiley’s paintings with their own eyes.”  

Interested in checking out Wiley’s work in person? The MAM is open Tuesday through Sunday. And Milwaukeeans get in free the first Thursday of every month.



Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.