Feb 13

The Unveiling of the Obama Portraits Depicts What We Have Lost

The decency of the 44th president contrasts painfully with the incivility of the 45th.

The unveiling of portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama in the National Portrait Gallery Monday contrasted painfully with the images flowing out of the White House over the past week: a woman with a black eye inflicted by her former husband, a Trump staffer in good standing.

The awful contrast between a President and First Lady who strove to act with decency and grace at all times, and a woman abused by a trusted employee of a White House that cares about neither decency nor grace, is the story of our time.

Of course, the portraits of the Obamas will endure, and the sad photograph of Colbie Holderness, wife of the belatedly dismissed Rob Porter, will be mercifully forgotten, but the everyday contrast between the Obama and Trump presidencies is being stamped into American memory. That's a good thing, even if it is sad.

The National Portrait Gallery is where American history is captured and imagined into the future. The least pretentious and most entertaining of Washington's art museums, its corridors are lined with paintings of movie stars and moguls, forgotten senators, Civil War generals, and heroes of the civil rights movement. You’ll meet Marilyn, Elvis and Michael Jackson there, as well as Andrew Jackson, FDR and JFK. It is easy to picture the images of Donald and Melania Trump on its walls—and one day they will be.

But the images of the 45th president and his wife—whatever they look like—will be overlaid in the viewer's mind with other images: Charlottesville besieged, a woman abused, a beloved teacher deported, a Gold Star family insulted, and other black eyes on American history that will not be captured on the gallery’s walls, but will endure in national memory with shame and regret.

Not so with the portrait of President Obama, by Kehinde Wiley, in which the 44th president emerges from a field of flowers native to Kenya, Hawaii and Illinois, a little gray in the head, and with such big hands. Perhaps the painting tells us that Obama is destined to be overgrown by the tendrils of those plants, if not by the passage of time itself. But not just yet. His presidency and legacy are memorialized as a living thing, still growing and thriving.

The portrait of Michelle Obama, by Amy Sherald, depicts her in a high-fashion gown on a background of pale blue, embodying her cool style. One can imagine a similar portrait of Melania Trump, who preserves her dignity and beauty only by standing apart from her buffoonish husband. Trump's vanity has already found expression in a portrait he commissioned and paid for with charitable contributions to the Trump Foundation. He will be remembered accordingly.

In these pictures, real and imagined, American history will be passed on and future generations will see what we lost on Election Day 2016.

Watch the Obama portrait unveiling ceremony:


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