New controversy rages: Do official portraits look like the Obamas?

Shouldn’t official portraits of America’s presidents and first ladies attempt to resemble them? The point of these artistic exercises might seem archaic in the modern age, where photography can take the place of the artist. That might be the impulse that drove the portrait choices made for Michelle Obama’s remembrance, unveiled earlier this morning in a ceremony at the Smithsonian:

The audience erupted in applause, but the head-scratching began in earnest almost immediately afterward. Who is the woman in the portrait? It only bears a generic resemblance to the former First Lady, if that, HuffPost reporter Sam Stein noted:

CNN’s Chris Cillizza doesn’t think so:

My taste in art ends with les impressionnistes, so take my critique with a grain of salt, but this looks like an art-college project more than an official portrait. The artist appeared to take more care with the use of colors in the dress than in capturing the likeness of the former first lady. In fact, the most striking impression this makes apart from the bottom of the dress is its blandness. The figure barely stands out from the background, and very little personality emerges from its closed-off pose. Overall, the artwork conveys a strange passivity that could almost be read as criticism of Michelle Obama’s work as first lady.

The portrait of Barack Obama bears more resemblance to its subject, but in this case, the figure seems almost to literally emerge from an ivy-floral background. Either that or the hedge seems to be on the verge of swallowing up the former president:

Nevertheless, the subjects themselves expressed their approval. Perhaps Mr. Obama felt some relief after seeing a more recognizable portrait of himself, albeit with the nontraditional elements:

Er, okaaaay, but there doesn’t even appear to be so much as a smolder in her portrait. The “hotness” comment on something with so little resemblance to its subject may not entirely be a compliment in effect, although Obama certainly meant it that way. Both of the Obamas deserved better than what we saw today, whether they truly enjoyed these or were just trying their best to be gracious about it.

One has to wonder whether portraiture has all but died as an art form, thanks to photography’s superior ability to capture a subject honestly and directly. These artists felt compelled to deliver a product which appears to cut against the entire raison d’être for official portraits, which is to capture the likenesses of these officeholders for posterity. Instead, the artists appear more interested in self-indulgence than in the mission of the project. There’s nothing wrong with that when they work on their own, but perhaps we should expect more of them when working on historical likenesses. Or better yet, have presidents and first ladies sit for professional and competent photographers.