Michelle Obama’s White House Portrait: Arms and the Woman

How does a first lady claim her part in history? How does she sum up her accomplishments in her non-job job?

With a book, sure. And with her official White House portrait: that painting that hangs in perpetuity with all the paintings of the women who came before, and tells the story not just of the individual, but also of her place in the executive continuum.

That is, in some ways, the ultimate example of the art of political image-making.

So it seemed, anyway, on Wednesday, when the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were revealed in a ceremony at the Biden White House. (Normally this would have happened during the Trump administration, but Donald J. Trump never scheduled the traditional unveiling.)

Mr. Obama’s painting, by the photorealist artist Robert McCurdy, depicts the president in a dark suit, white shirt and silver tie against a white background, jacket buttoned, hands in his pockets, looking straight at the viewer. Relaxed, but with a coiled energy and a sense of the portent of the office.

Mrs. Obama’s portrait, however, is something else. Created by Sharon Sprung, it shows her in a sky blue chiffon evening dress with a pintucked bodice, a single strap falling off one shoulder, sitting casually back on a red couch in the Red Room of the mansion. More relaxed and more romantic than the portraits of her immediate predecessors — Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush were captured standing, buttoned-up and wearing black (Mrs. Clinton in a pantsuit and Mrs. Bush in an evening shirtdress) — it is also rife with Easter eggs.

The dress, for example, is by Jason Wu, the Taiwanese-Canadian designer who is a New York Fashion Week stalwart and who rose to fame as the creator of Mrs. Obama’s first and second inaugural ball gowns (and the dress she wore to her husband’s farewell presidential address in Chicago). Indeed, Mr. Wu’s own success during that period was closely linked to the way those dresses seemed to reflect the fairy tale that the Obama election represented. The promise that, as Mrs. Obama said in the portrait unveiling, “there’s a place for everyone in this country.”

Coincidence? Not remotely. The blue dress was chosen specifically for the portrait, said Meredith Koop, the stylist and consultant who has been working with Mrs. Obama since her time in the White House. Ms. Koop said she had prepped the look in January 2017, just before the transfer of power.

“I wanted something timeless and dreamy,” Ms. Koop said. “It came down to Jason’s ability to make clothes for Mrs. Obama that made her feel both comfortable and beautiful, as he had done for so many occasions.”

It’s a reminder of how much Mrs. Obama, during her time in the White House, used fashion and the public’s fascination with what she wore (even as she, like many first ladies, also found it puzzling and frustrating) as a tool of communication and soft policy: to shine a spotlight on young designers of color, designers who represented the melting pot of America, and designers who championed inclusivity. First ladies before her had supported homegrown designers, but never had they approached their image-making quite as strategically and comprehensively.

Just as the more casual posture in the portrait is a reminder of how she destuffed her role, owning the title “hugger in chief,” swapping suit jackets for cardigans and pantsuits for patterned dresses, “mom” dancing with Jimmy Fallon, and otherwise redefining some of the old strictures of first lady-dom.

And just as the fact the dress features Mrs. Obama’s bare arms (a rarity in first lady portraits — you have to go back to Lady Bird Johnson in 1968 to find a first lady exposing any arm) reflects the way Mrs. Obama’s physical power became both a lightning rod for those who would attack her with racist stereotypes, and shorthand for her strength of character. Enshrining them in the White House portrait is, perhaps, the ultimate “we go high” response. As was not lost on social media.

@MichelleObama got the memo from Black Women everywhere to show those amazing arms,” went one tweet.

“FLOTUS owns the Second Amendment: the right to bare arms. Thank you @MichelleObama” went another.

None of this is an accident. As the designer Thom Browne (who made the dress and coat Mrs. Obama wore in the 2013 inaugural parade) told The New York Times of the first lady, “She realized very early on that everything she did had ramifications.” In choices made for posterity, the details matter.

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