Amy Sherald Credit: Deanna Isaacs

We’re never supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I just bought a book for its jacket. I’m a lifelong bibliophile who should know better, but it might be the most beautiful jacket I’ve ever seen.

The book that came with it is The Obama Portraits, published this month by Princeton University Press and equipped with a subtly textured, blank grey cover that—unjacketed—would be easy to pass by. It turns out to be something I’m happy to have: a collection of four essays about the making of the official portraits of Michelle and Barack Obama, by artists Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley, respectively, for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. Neither mammoth coffee-table decoration, nor academic tome, it has a lot of handsome art images, some interesting photos, and a transcript of the 2018 unveiling ceremony. I’ll probably even read it.

Last week, three of the essayists and Sherald came to Chicago for a book launch event at the Stony Island Arts Bank that featured a panel discussion led by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, the National Portrait Gallery’s director of history, research, and scholarship.  

Art historian and Duke University professor Richard J. Powell got a round of applause from the standing-room-only crowd when he started the discussion by noting that he was born at 60th and Cottage Grove.

Powell talked about the European tradition of “Grand Manner” portraiture—big, theatrical representations of important people, like generals, often in dramatic landscapes, frequently on horseback. American presidential portraits for the most part followed this tradition, Powell said, but Sherald and Wiley “raised the ante on it.” They incorporated “something about what it means to be a remarkable African American woman and man in the 21st century.”  

Sherald said the first thing she did when she learned that she had the commission was to go online and look at the thousands of public photographs of Michelle Obama. That was the moment, Sherald said, when she knew she “wanted to engage the power of portraiture to give the public something more intimate and nuanced. [Michelle Obama] has a very public self that we all adore, but inside there’s a woman that maybe only her family gets to see. I wanted to catch a glimpse of that.”  

Both portraits started with photographs; Michelle’s cotton poplin geometric print halter dress by American designer Michelle Smith, which reminded Sherald of Gee’s Bend quilts, was one of 11 dresses considered for her photo shoot and the first one the first lady put on.

As for the most frequent question about the portrait—What’s up with the gray skin tone?—Sherald, who often portrays skin this way, said this: “When you see Brown skin it tends to codify something immediately.” The gray (which she says has a different effect if seen on-site than it does, say, on Instagram) is intended to allow you “to look past that and see the real person.”  

According to Powell, the Obamas’ choice of Sherald and Wiley indicates that they not only wanted accomplished portraits, “but they also wanted important works of contemporary art.” He said the proliferation of digital cameras has produced an unexpected result: people are rediscovering the “power, beauty, and majesty of the painted portrait,” with its ability to go beyond mere likeness to capture what’s inside.

So, back to the jacket, which was designed by Miko McGinty. It’s a densely saturated reproduction of the Obama portraits, exquisitely printed (in Italy) on both sides, blurbs and all, and totally reversible. On the book I took home, the president’s up front, along with the title. He’s perched on the now-familiar antique chair, backed by the iconic wall of profuse greenery (who knew those chrysanthemums peeking through are the official Chicago flower?), and looking directly at me—while Michelle regally occupies her own airy blue space on the back. If I ever want to promote her to the cover (or if, heaven forbid, the jacket ever gets soiled) all I have to do is flip it over and, presto, good as new.

But, actually, I’m thinking of letting the book go bare and giving this jacket what it deserves: its own double-sided glass frame. 

The Obama portraits, which attracted a million viewers in their first year at the National Gallery (raising attendance there from 1.1 million to 2.1 million), will go on tour next year, starting with a stint at the Art Institute of Chicago that DuBois Shaw said will be free to the public. The dates for that are June 18 to August 15, 2021.  v