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News Alumna brings Obama portraits to the NPG

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Amy Sherald's portrait of Michelle Obama

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama by Amy Sherald, oil on linen, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. (Image courtesy the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery) 

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.” 

Kehinde Wiley's portrait of Barack Obama

Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley, oil on canvas, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. (Image courtesey the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery) © 2018 Kehinde Wiley 

Moss earned her Masters degree from Williams College in Massachusetts before completing her Ph.D. from the Department of Art History. While at UD, Moss focused on 19th-century American Art, and was highly influenced by a class on American portraiture taught by Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Margaret Werth

Moss has also utilized her dissertation research to curate her current exhibition, “The Sweat of Their Face,” which features portraits of the American laborer. Moss said that while a Ph.D. candidate, “there was a lot of focus on the role of museums in society. Are they for housing sacred objects, or for education? Many people were asking ‘what is their purpose?’” In terms of accessibility, this question also led to “who is the museum for?” While museums may have been considered generally off-limits to the average worker in the 19th century, Moss explains that “’The Sweat of Their Face’…really honors American workers,” making the space about and for them. The exhibition is on display through September 3, 2018. 

The National Portrait Gallery is the permanent home to the Obama portraits. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Obama hangs in the “America’s Presidents” gallery, and Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama’s is on view in the “Recent Acquisitions” gallery. 

This Page Last Modified On: 2/21/2018 12:00 PM
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Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, Dorothy Moss helped facilitate the selection process and acquisition of the two portraits.

Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, Dorothy Moss helped facilitate the selection process and acquisition of the two portraits.

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Dorothy Moss, Obama portriats, Department of Art History
  • Department of Art History
  • University of Delaware
  • 318 Old College
  • Newark, DE 19716 USA
  • Phone: 302-831-8415