Michelle Obama’s Dress: Portrait of a FLOTUS
Sharon Sprung, “First Lady Michelle Obama,” 2018, oil
on panel, 44 x 36”. Courtesy the White House Historical
Association/White House Collection, Washington, D.C.
Amy Sherald, “First Lady Michelle Obama,” 2018, oil on linen,
72 x 60”. Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
A brief moment of surprising peace and gender wokeness followed the midterm elections. Two lesbians won governorships and abortion rights survived in some states. That peace was shattered a week later when the former pussy-grabber-in-chief rose up from the depths of our nation’s collective unconscious to announce he’s running for president again.
So, as Nancy Pelosi prepares to step back from leadership in the House, let us consider the fragile status of women in this country, as epitomized by the institution of the “first lady.”
In September, the Bidens unveiled the official presidential portraits of the Obamas, a ceremony that had been delayed for four years by our previous president. Like official portraits before them and in keeping with their intended purpose — to hang in the White House — these paintings by Robert McCurdy (Barack) and Sharon Sprung (Michelle) are deeply conservative and rather bland. Another pair of Obama portraits, unveiled in 2018, which were commissioned by The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, are edgier and notable mainly for Kehinde Wiley’s stunning vision of Barack Obama surrounded by floral foliage native to his ancestral origin and former homes (Hawaii, Chicago). Amy Sherald’s painting of Michelle is more subdued. The former First Lady’s face fades to gray; the star of that composition is a pretty dress.
This time, Barack’s portrait is photographic, stylistically as safe as you can get, but it gets the job done. He looks thoughtful, serious, decisive, dignified. Next to that, Sharon Sprung’s painting of Michelle seems downright bizarre. It makes Michelle look passive and … nice. Sort of, though she’s showing a lot of flesh and seems absent somehow, like a beauty pageant contestant who’s thinking about going home and changing into a bathrobe.
Dust Jacket to “Madame Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and The Lessons of Power"
by Susan Page. Photo courtesy of Twelve Books (Hachette Book Group)
At the unveiling, Barack commented on his wife’s portrait with characteristic cool, saying that the painting captured “everything I love about Michelle: her grace, her intelligence, and the fact that she’s fine.”
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, “Joséphine-Éléonore-Marie-Paulie de Galard de Brassac de Béarn Princesse de Brogie,” 1851-53, oil on canvas,
47 3/4 x 35 3/4”. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Good soundbite, and what else can he say? But I beg to differ. The painting doesn’t begin to capture her intelligence and grace, let alone to consider her complexity. Art should deepen our understanding, show us something we missed; this doesn’t even try.
Incredibly, in 2022, the painting is all about the dress. Granted, as a rendering it’s pretty. I like paintings of dresses — Ingres, Fragonard, Sargent all did some fine renditions. Even if they do present women as confections, ensconced in yards of luxurious fabric, their little pink shoes peeking out from petticoats, cascading folds of satin slipping off smooth shoulders. Chicago artist Chuck Walker has made some lovely paintings of dresses on hangers that appear to be objects of desire unto themselves. Love that, too, in a weird way. But doesn’t Michelle Obama, who is descended from slaves, is pushing 60, and grew up on the south side of Chicago as the daughter of a man who tended boilers at a city water filtration plant, then became the first Black FLOTUS, deserve to be immortalized as more than a supremely fit hanger for a dress?
You could say it’s tradition. In 1987, Aaron Shikler painted Nancy Reagan in a full-length red sheath. I’d say about 80% of that painting is dress, but maybe that is the point, maybe that FLOTUS was all about the dress. And it’s a fabulous dress, less fussily painted and more regal than the one Michelle wears, functioning as a column that supports the head of a formidable woman who is presented as mysterious and determined, and possibly more than a little avaricious. If Nancy Reagan gets a portrait like this, what is Michelle Obama doing in a prom dress?
A portrait of Michelle Obama should not be about clothing, or even about her beautiful arms and shoulders, but this one is. Sprung shies away from her face, bestowing only blank prettiness. Where is that complex woman who wasn’t afraid to show her anger? Who fist-bumped her husband on stage? The woman who got those arms, at least in part, by digging in a vegetable garden? Why does Michelle Obama have to be strapped into an evening gown that looks like a bridesmaid dress or a pageant costume? What if someone painted her in jeans? Or in a dress that dissolves into a Gees Bend quilt? What if she’s soaring through space? If it has to be about clothes, why not a killer trouser suit? And pose her standing.
Instead, she is seated, almost collapsed, masked and boxed in by old-school femininity. Much is made in this painting of her big shiny engagement ring, which is painted in sharp focus, unlike her face.
I get that Michelle Obama would be a hard subject to depict. She has an edge, and to portray that edge would be to risk coming up against it. Both portraitists are women, and women don’t like to confront women. We tend to prefer consensus to confrontation. It would take a bold woman to paint Michelle in an incisive way, to dare to give us a deeper look.
When the painting was unveiled, I was reminded, maybe oddly, of the shallow portrait of Elvis Presley offered by Baz Luhrmann’s recent biopic. That cinematic portrait is also soft and glamorous, also about great clothes. The pink suit — I love it! But where’s EP’s wit, the sly smile, the decadence, the obsessive behaviors? Shouldn’t the director have included at least one gross scene?
I don’t mean to compare Michelle Obama to Elvis Presley or to demand that a portraitist or biographer gin up dirt for the sake of excitement. Michelle Obama doesn’t appear to have a dark side, unless being a strong woman counts. (I’m sure for some it does.) But human beings are complex. She’s fairly open about her ambivalence towards her role, yet neither portrait ventured to explore this. Maybe neither painter dared to. It’s true that she didn’t run for office and didn’t want her husband to, therefore shouldn’t be subjected to the same scrutiny. Still, a portrait artist owes us and her subject more than a bland compliment.
Chuck Walker, “Another Dress,” oil on canvas
All this said, it may not be all Sprung’s fault. Michelle may be impossible to paint. She is too self-contained, too imposing, too important. I looked at other Sprung portraits of women; they’re traditional and romantic, but they’re also all far more expressive than her FLOTUS portrait.
Michelle and Barack Obama bump fists. Photo courtesy of Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty
It may simply be that Michelle is, as they say, a lot, too much to sort out. For now, she’s a work in progress. She’ll be more interpretable in fifty years. Earlier this year, Showtime released “The First Lady,” a streaming series that braided the stories of Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama over ten episodes, spotlighting their lives while placing their husbands in the shadows. It was a worthy attempt even though the results were mixed, and the show didn’t get renewed for a second season. The Betty Ford story sparkled, but the portrayal of Michelle was cautious and premature, more a flattering caricature than a real portrait. So it is with this painting, which is a shame.
With women’s rights up for grabs now, this amounts to a wasted opportunity. Sprung rendered Michelle Obama, of all people, as a soft, blurry first lady rather than as the powerhouse woman she is.
[Also read Richard Speer’s take on the Obama portraits from our September edition—Ed.]