On February 12, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery welcomed two historically significant portraits into their collection with the help of alumna Dorothy Moss. Moss, who graduated with a Ph.D. from the Department of Art History in 2012, is the National Portrait Gallery’s Curator of Painting and Sculpture and Coordinating Curator for the Smithsonian Women’s History Initiative.
While the National Portrait Gallery is home to the only complete presidential portrait collection outside of the White House, the addition of the portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama are historically significant in new ways. Not only is Barack Obama’s the first African-American presidential portrait to enter the collection, the two Obama commissions are the first official presidential portraits completed by African-American artists: Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley.
Dorothy Moss was part of a team of curators that facilitated the artist selection process with the Obamas. The curators presented several names and portfolios of potential portrait artists and from there, Mr. and Mrs. Obama selected 3 finalists to be interviewed. Once Amy Sherald and Kenhinde Wiley were selected, Moss mainly worked with Michelle Obama and Sherald in the process of creating the former First Lady’s portrait. Moss even attended one of the sittings and consulted with Sherald on aspects of the work.
When asked what was most exciting for her regarding the presidential portraits, Moss said, “it was really exciting to see the level of engagement from the Obamas because they clearly understand the power of portraiture… Both Michelle Obama and Amy Sherald have talked at different times about the importance of a person seeing someone that looks like them in a museum. The Obamas were very aware of that power with their portraits.”
It seems that while all portraiture wields the power of representation, these particular works have garnered much more reaction from the public than previous presidential portrait commissions. In thinking of why that might be, Moss said, “they’re definitely different than the other portraits in the gallery... When you walk through the “America’s Presidents’’ gallery and come upon the Kehinde Wiley piece, it really does feel like it’s bringing us into the present.”