The Obama Portraits – Maniscalco Gallery


Click to see the images and read the AP News story

   I’d like to offer a word or two about the recent presentation of the Obama’s official portraits, for what it’s worth. First, what a class act. There was no mention of the insult leveled by the previous admin for not doing this when he had the chance. I watched the whole proceeding, not one mention of this insult, nor of the former president. It was a class act.


   Second, a word about the portraits themselves, which are often a source of controversy. I thought Barack’s portrait hit the mark beautifully. Direct, strong, flaws and all. I also enjoyed the white background, which for me represents the white’s only club he upended by his presidency, and which was unwittingly bruised and unfortunately reawakened by his very being.


   I am not as enthusiastic about Michelle’s portrait. I like the stark design but after that I had some problems. I don’t think the colors are harmonious with one another, negating the very air in the room itself. I think she has a much longer neck. And I sense tension around the mouth and lips. Is the blue dress a reference to the Monica Lewinski scandal, which the late portraitist Nelson Shanks referenced to in his portrait of Clinton? I would hopefully assume not.


Barack Obama Poster

My sketch of President Obama, which I made right after his election.

I think the tradition of presidential oil portraiture is a beautiful thing. A portrait is a fantasy. When the fantasy succeeds, it activates the viewer’s imagination, triggering empathy and giving an illusion of insight into the subject. A good portrait exists in the gap between how the subject wants to be seen and how the artist sees them. A portrait is less about capturing someone than about creating something. Both these portraits accomplish all that. I like to think mine do as well.


   One hopes we are bringing something beautiful into a dark world.  Richard Avedon famously said that “All photographs are accurate, none of them is the truth.” Perhaps truth can be found only in the painted portrait. I don’t think about who the subject is that I am painting. I’m only ever asking one question when I paint: how can I make this individual appear even kinder and more lovable than I found them? Years can go by in an instant when you’re an artist. Yet only a great portraitist can capture an instant in time that can be appreciated for years to come. I will wrap up these thoughts about portraiture with this quote from Picasso:


I would like to prevent people from ever seeing how a picture of mine has been done. What can it possibly matter? What I want is that the only thing emanating from my pictures should be emotion.” Pablo Picasso


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