Obama portraits draw standing room only crowd at the deYoung
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS) -- It was standing room only Juneteenth weekend at the deYoung Museum, people coming to get a glimpse of American royalty and perhaps closer to the American dream.
President Barack Obama and first Lady Michelle's official White House paintings were touring the nation and will soon join the pantheon of former U.S. presidents who line the walls of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. All white males. Until now.
"The Obama portraits are, by definition, historic," says Tim Burguard, director, Distinguished Senior Curator and Curator-in-Charge of American Art for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "The first Black president, the first Black first lady. I would argue they're actually cultural icons, and for a lot of people, they become pilgrimage paintings."
Art lovers, the president and first lady interviewed several artists but chose two: Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.
A product of Yale, who even attended the San Francisco Art Institute, Wiley is considered one of the most important artists of this generation. He's known for street-casting ordinary men and women in large scale paintings.
"Prior to the selection of Barack Obama, my work was so much about painting the powerless, painting those people who come from many of the black and brown underserved communities throughout the world.," says Wiley. "Here you're dealing with actual power, not metaphorical, but its depiction."
Known for her grayscale monotone colors, Sherald never considered herself a portraitist and says that's because her subjects represent something larger than life.
"I see myself as an American realist and somebody that tells American stories, and this is a very American story." she says.
At the first unveiling last year, she told the First Lady, "Mrs. Obama, you exist in our minds and our hearts in the way that you do because we can see ourselves in you."
"I'm also thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls and girls of color," says Burgard. "Like little Parker Curry, whose photo went viral. And there she is, all of perhaps two feet tall, looking up, craning her neck in awe. And she's told her mother she's like a queen."
A queen who makes Parker feel like a princess.
The former First Lady seemed humbled by the entire process, and her own path.
"They will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution," she told the crowd after seeing her portrait. "Wow. What an incredible journey we are on together in this country."
"Like Michelle, I have never had a portrait, not of myself," said former President Obama with the gleam in his eye he gets when he's about to say something funny. "And so when I heard that this was part of the tradition, I didn't quite know what to do."
Burgard picks up the story.
"When Barack Obama meets Kehinde Wiley, he talked about how there was a negotiation. He said, 'I lost the battle for smaller ears and less gray hair.' But he said 'I did win the battle for Kehindy not to put me on a horse like he has in some of his other paintings.' And he said, 'I've got enough political problems. You know, I don't need you putting me on a horse in my portrait.'"
Instead, the former commander-in-chief is immortalized in a bed of flowers from Indonesia, Kenya and Illinois, and now, part of our national treasure.
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