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Is Michelle Obama’s portrait a ‘modern-day Mona Lisa’ or does it miss the mark?

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We've now got a look at how former United States president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama will be immortalised at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

Artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald are behind the portraits, and they're the first black artists ever commissioned to paint official presidential portraits for the Smithsonian.

And while there's been praise for Mr Obama's portrait, there's been a mixed reaction to the portrait of Ms Obama, painted by Sherald.

The most common complaint? It doesn't look like Michelle Obama.

Here's New York Times art critic Holland Cotter, who said he was disappointed that the focus of Michelle Obama's portrait appeared to be her dress:

"I was anticipating —hoping for — a bolder, more incisive image of the strong-voiced person I imagine this former first lady to be," Cotter said in his review.

The presenter of Radio National's The Art Hub, Eddie Ayres, agrees that the portrait hasn't captured the "spirit" of Ms Obama.

"I love Michelle Obama, I think she's an extraordinary woman. And she's so powerful and so gracious and she mixed all that in with also appearing to be extremely kind," he said.

"She's got all these incredibly strong qualities and for me, looking at it (the portrait) on my little computer screen, it doesn't look like they have been really captured.

"In my mind that portrait hasn't quite captured the magnificence of Michelle Obama."

But there was also plenty of praise for the work.

Reviewing the portraits for The Guardian, Jonathan Jones called Ms Obama's portrait a "modern-day Mona Lisa".

"Sherald's painting is immediately fascinating, haunting and human. Its muted colours are poetic and unexpected," Jones wrote.

The works wouldn't have been a shock to the Obamas

They chose the artists personally, and Sherald's portrait of Ms Obama is in line with her earlier works.

External Link: M Obama portrait tweet

Sherald told the BBC in 2016 her decision to use hues of grey for skin "omits" the colour of her subject.

"I want my portraits to create a space where blackness can breathe," she told the BBC.

"It was about creating a space where people could see the humanity of a person of colour and for people of colour to look at a portrait of themselves."

Former first lady Michelle Obama beside her official portrait

A portrait doesn't have to be photorealistic

At least according to Mr Ayres, who says photorealism doesn't necessarily make for a good portrait, but capturing the 'spirit' of the subject is absolutely crucial.

Look at the winner of the 2017 Archibald Prize. Or Hans Holbein the Younger's famous portrait of Henry VIII for example.

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

"One feels that if there were actually a man walking around who looked exactly like that he would look very, very odd," Mr Ayres said.

"But still you have that incredible sense of this grandeur of the King from that portrait."

He said that a portrait artist's role was to deliver their interpretation of the subject.

"They(artists) experience, they take in, they process and then with their artistic genius out the other side comes for instance, a Picasso version of Michelle Obama," Mr Ayres said.

"And Picasso's version of Michelle Obama probably isn't going to look exactly like Michelle Obama. But its going to be the most amazing capture of her spirit.

"To my mind I think that painting (Sherald's portrait) hasn't worked for me.

"But of course that's another wonderful thing isn't it? That art is wonderfully subjective for all of us."

ABC/Reuters

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