“It doesn’t even look like her.”
That one comment, culled from thousands online about Baltimore artist Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama unveiled today at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery, sums up a familiar response to the public’s often less-than flattering responses to portrait painting.
In the portrait, Mrs. Obama sits in a custom dress designed by Milly’s Michelle Smith of bold geometric shapes, her expression challenging the viewer. Her face and skin are grey, as Sherald often paints her subjects.
It doesn’t look exactly like her, it doesn’t look exactly not like her. It is a representation of Mrs. Obama, who sat for Sherald the artist, and the responses to the result sum up the tension between artist and sitter and artist and spectator, too.
Holland Cotter, art critic for the New York Times, said Mrs. Obama’s portrait face was too far removed from the real one.
“To be honest, I was anticipating—hoping for—a bolder, more incisive image of the strong-voiced person I imagine this former first lady to be,” Cotter wrote.
This gets at the central tension of the art of the portrait. Just how much should a portrait be about physical likeness, versus conveying psychological truth, or an insight into character? The furor over Michelle Obama’s portrait suggests we want a portrait to deliver the first above all else.