MHC professor on presidential portrait artist

Art historian and portrait expert Paul Staiti says the Obamas’ selection of African-American artists for their official portraits is a political choice.

By Xiomara Núñez '20

When The New York Times wanted context for its story about Amy Sherald, the artist chosen to create Michelle Obama’s official portrait, it turned to Paul Staiti, an expert in presidential portraits at Mount Holyoke College.

Staiti, Professor of Fine Arts on the Alumnae Foundation in the art history department, specializes in American art and cultural history. An expert on the intersection between American fine arts and politics, Staiti has written extensively about 18th- and 19th-century portraiture. His latest book, “Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution Through Painters’ Eyes,” discusses five eminent painters from the Revolutionary War era who transformed the turbulence of their time into enduring works of art.

In the article, Staiti stressed the significance of having African-American artists — Kehinde Wiley has been commissioned to paint Barack Obama — paint the presidential couple. Sherald and Wiley have been appointed by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the first time it has selected African-American artists to paint a presidential couple.

“It’s as if she’s saying, ‘Let’s be clear: the President and I are African Americans and proudly so,” Staiti said about Mrs. Obama’s choice of Sherald. “These portraits are going to have an African-American vibe — they’re going to break out of that rather staid tradition. I think it’s important and I think it’s political.”

Read the article.