Amy Sherald, born in Georgia and based in Baltimore, Maryland, is the portrait painter who was selected by the Smithsonian Institution to paint the portrait of Michelle Obama, the former First Lady of the United States.
Sherald tells about a stunning moment in her life when she was in the sixth grade and saw “Object Permanence” a self-portrait by the African American artist Bo Bartlett. She “experienced the power of seeing a painting of a person who looked like me. I essentially built my career around that moment . . . ”
Sherald attended Clark-Atlanta University, an historically black university, and received her B.A. in painting in 1997. She received her M.F.A. in 2004 from Maryland Institute College of Art where she studied with famed Abstract Expressionist painter Grace Hartigan. She still uses Hartigan’s dripping method for backgrounds of her paintings. Sherald then lived and studied with figurative painter Odd Nerdrum in Norway. In 2008, she received an artist residency assistantship in Beijing, China.
Sherald is a portrait painter whose work began with self-portraits of herself after she shaved off her hair. She then chose to paint fantastical works. Her portrait painting evolved into a “stylized realism” in which the varied skin tones of her African American subjects were painted in grisaille. This is a method of painting in gray monochrome, a device reminiscent of black & white photography, that she has often used in her portraits. The aim is to “exclude the idea of color as race.”
Color is found in the clothing that her subjects wear and in the flat plane of the background. Her work focuses on issues of race in the American South. She only paints African Americans because of the scarcity of black faces in art. “There’s not enough images of us.”
Because Sherald’s gradations allude to the mixed and often unacknowledged backgrounds of African Americans, her paintings make an important statement about racial history. Her method is to choose a subject and photograph the person outside in natural light. She typically paints African Americans doing everyday things. The titles she gives each of her paintings gives that person inherent dignity and worth. One of these is her 2015 “Finding Herself Was One Thing/ Taking Ownership of That Freed Self Was Another.” Another portrait in 2016 is titled “Listen, You a Wonder. You a City of a Woman. You Got a Geography of Your Own.” This features a woman wearing an elegant black hat and a white dress, stylishly decorated with black flowers. As if to underline the point, the woman is demurely holding a black purse in front of herself. She has made many such portraits of everyday people in the 54” by 43” size she has used in these two paintings.
The painting of Michelle Obama went on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in 2018. Along with Kehinde Wiley, who was commissioned to paint the portrait of former President Barach Obama, these two artists are the first African American artists to receive such a commission, as they portray the first African Americans to occupy the White House.
The former First Lady is pictured in a seated position against a sky-blue background. She is pictured with her left arm crossing her lap and her right elbow poised on her left arm. Her chin rests on top of her right hand. She looks directly at the viewer with a serious expression. The First Lady wears a dress that is mostly white. There is color in the geometric patterns that decorate it. However, her dress is not a couture creation. Its black, white, red, and gold decorative patterns recall the quilt designs, created by generations of African-American women in the Alabama hamlet of Gee’s Bend.
Sherald has had numerous solo and group exhibitions starting in 1997 in New York, Philadelphia, Chapel Hill, Chicago, Baltimore, and Charlottesville. She has received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 2013 and an award from the Joan Mitchell Foundation in 2014. She is the recent winner of the David C. Driskill Prize, given by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta for her contributions to art within the African diaspora.
Her portraits of women were exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum at the end of July, 2018 and most recently at Hauser & Wirth where she held down an enormous space with just seven new portraits of black subjects. Sherald’s painting of twenty-six-year-old Breonna Taylor was used as the cover of the September, 2020 issue of “Vanity Fair.” The magazine’s posthumous cover subject was an emergency room technician shot to death by three policemen, who broke into her apartment with a battering ram and opened fire. Sherald has painted Taylor in a long evening dress in the medium blue tones of scrubs, the clothes worn by hospital workers.
Her work is found in the public collections of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery; U.S. Embassy Dakar, Senegal; National Museum of African American History and Culture; and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.