The museum tried to answer this question, accompanying its public opening with a book titled The American: This New Man. In it, the historian Oscar Handlin, quoting the French-American writer St. John de Crèvecoeur, defined an American as someone who had heroically left behind the “ancient prejudices and manners” of the Old World—this, despite the fact that the ideas of European racial superiority had transferred themselves to the New World and been used to justify Native American genocide and slavery. Portraiture as an elitist art form had also crossed the Atlantic, but just like the European credo of noblesse oblige, American portraiture favored white men who owned land.
The result was that the museum’s collection itself was largely pale and male, with the stories of first contact, immigration, and bondage hard to come by or altogether absent. While Mellon had donated a rare portrait of Pocahontas, and the Harmon Foundation a posthumous painting of Harriet Tubman, it would take another few years to add Frederick Douglass and a decade to add Sojourner Truth. Restricted in no small measure by policies that prohibited photography or portraits of anyone who had not been dead for at least a decade, the museum’s presentation of E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”), was more like E pluribus lecti (“Out of many, some”).
Today’s National Portrait Gallery includes Jimi Hendrix and Marilyn Monroe along with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. Free admission allows visitors to decide for themselves whom they want to admire, and creates a community that might share a cultural discourse tilted more toward Hollywood than toward holy scripture. Where once religious pilgrims carried guidebooks along with devotional texts to direct their journey, visitors today carry museum guides along with mobile phones. Leaving the familiarities of their daily lives, they travel into these templelike spaces to experience something emotional, bigger than themselves. Echoing the prescribed routes of religious pilgrimage, visitors to the National Portrait Gallery might find a connection with communitas.
The date of the Obama portraits’ unveiling, deliberately chosen by Barack Obama, was February 12, Lincoln’s birthday. The 44th president had made no secret that he admired the 16th, having launched his presidential campaign in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois; held the Lincoln Bible at his swearing-in; and often remarked that Lincoln’s abolition of slavery had made his presidency possible. Like Lincoln, the first president to savvily use photography of himself to connect with the American people, Obama’s presidency had been marked by an understanding of the power of portraiture.
Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, the artists the Obamas had chosen, were the first African Americans to paint the portraits of a president or first lady for the National Portrait Gallery, and from the moment of the unveiling, it was clear that both had borrowed from, and broken with, the canon of traditional portraiture. Wiley chose to seat the president in a chair, wearing a suit but no tie, looking directly out of the canvas. The pose is similar to that of George Peter Alexander Healy’s Abraham Lincoln, Elaine de Kooning’s John F. Kennedy, and Robert Anderson’s George W. Bush, all portraits that Wiley had seen on walks through the galleries. But it was the background of rampant foliage and flowers symbolizing periods of the president’s life—chrysanthemums for Chicago, jasmine for Hawaii and Indonesia, African lilies for Kenya, and rosebuds for love—that was so extraordinary, making Obama appear at once timeless and contemporary.
The portrait of Michelle Obama elicited more commentary. Attired in a geometric-patterned dress by the designer Michelle Smith, which reminded the artist of modernist art and Gee’s Bend quilts created by the descendants of slaves, the former first lady was presented as both modern and historical. The rendering of her skin as gray, as the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote, “introduces the notion of double consciousness, the phrase coined by W. E. B. DuBois to describe the condition of anyone living with social and economic inequality.” Or, as the critic Antwaun Sargent noted more succinctly in W magazine, what viewers were witnessing were “visions of black power [shaking] up a gallery of white history.”