Kehinde Wiley’s keenly awaited portrait of the 44th president of the United States is a disappointment. It says much less about Barack Obama than Pete Souza’s photograph of the president bending down to let a little boy touch his hair. And it is unlikely to be remembered in the same way as Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster.
Commissioned for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where it joins portraits going back to Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 heroic portrait of George Washington, Wiley’s painting is too hung up on history. It plays self-consciously with the tradition of grand manner portraiture, at once ironising that tradition and proudly adding America’s first black president to it.