Culture Trips

The secret lives of the first ladies

Despite coming from a similar law background to Clinton, Michelle Obama’s lack of interest in politics made her a far more popular first lady. Unquestionably aware of the cultural and historical significance of being the first African-American president and first lady, both Obamas chose black artists to paint their portraits. Amy Sherald’s portrait, praised by President Obama for capturing his wife’s grace, beauty, intelligence, charm and “hotness”, also gained critical acclaim and has been hugely popular with museum visitors. DuBois Shaw sees the bond that Obama and Sherald formed as being key to the painting’s success. “The comfort level really has to be there in order to get a portrait that tells you something more than just what this person looks like, to go into their personality, their persona and what their values are,” she says. Those values are suggested by the dress she chose to wear. Designed by Michelle Smith, the vibrant patterns pay homage to the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, many of whom are descended from former slaves.

Obama’s tenure as first lady couldn’t be further removed from Melania Trump’s, who will chiefly be remembered for her disturbing Christmas decorations and controversial redesign of the rose garden. Given recent events in Washington, one wonders what will happen regarding her official portrait. For the exhibition she is represented by her official photograph, a steely-eyed, airbrushed shot, which, much like the woman herself, reveals very little in terms of personality.

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