Michelle Obama's Dress in Her Portrait Has a Deep Political Message

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He and Amy Sherald, who painted a portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama, are the first African-Americans in history to be commissioned to paint a presidential couple.

For Michelle Obama's official White House portrait, she chose artist Amy Sherald. Mrs. Obama's face forms the composition's peak, but could be nearly anyone's face, like a model's face in a fashion spread. During the portraits' unveiling on Monday, I heard several exclamations of "What?" and "Really?" in the ThinkProgress newsroom. For example, Wiley included flowers like jasmine to represent Hawaii, Obama's birthplace; African blue lilies for Kenya, the birthplace of his father; and chrysanthemums for Chicago, the birthplace of his political career.

Moments after Sherald's painting was revealed, Twitter was teeming with reactions from newly anointed art critics, who praised and condemned the work at lightning speed. More recently he has expanded his repertoire to include female subjects, as well as models from Brazil, India, Nigeria and Senegal, creating the collective image of a global black aristocracy. The use of gray is a political statement of sorts for Sherald, in which she discards the assigned "color" of African-American subjects.

"Nobody in my family tree as far as I can tell had their portrait done", said Mr Obama.

"We miss the way those who worked with us on this incredible journey carried yourselves and worked so hard to make this country a better place", he said. She's not centered in her painting, but rising above the center. "It's not a cheesecake pose, but it's embodied and physical in a way that's unusual for this kind of portrait; you get why her husband thanked Sherald for capturing Michelle Obama's grace, beauty, intelligence, and charm - and also her hotness". They are just being themselves. "What did they say?" she asked to no one. "I narrowed it down to two dresses, but once I saw her in that one, I knew that was the one that she needed to be frozen in time in". Sherald compared it to "the inspired quilt masterpieces made by the women of Gee's Bend", which she explains is "a small remote black community in Alabama where they compose quilts in geometries that transform clothes and fabric remnants into masterpieces".

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The gown also boasted pockets, a feature a sensible Capricorn like Obama would probably find useful. In this way, Sherald wondrously troubles assumptions about blackness and representation in portraiture. They were first unveiled yesterday in a private observance as they celebrated the Gallery's 50th anniversary.

Both paintings will be displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, part of the national Smithsonian museums, in Washington, D.C.

But ultimately, it presents something new. "It's like something I sense with my spirit more than my mind".

Barton Girdwood produced the broadcast version of this story.