8 Amazing Works of Art By and About People of Color at the National Portrait Gallery

In a rare feat for a presidential portrait, the February unveiling of President Barack Obama’s was an artistic event. The reveal of the first black president’s portrait (alongside that of First Lady Michelle Obama) drew international attention. Brooklyn artist Kehinde Wiley’s characteristically bright, bold painting has become an instant draw at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.

A trip to the museum is well worth your time. There are plenty of great pieces and hidden gems to explore during your visit. Sharlette Williams, our D.C. coordinator and hunt host extraordinaire (and local foodie), takes a look at a few of her favorite pieces created by or featuring people of color.

Kehinde Cool

Let’s begin by viewing a different creation from the same artist. In 2005, Kehinde Wiley completed his commissioned painting of James Todd Smith III, better known as rapper and actor LL Cool J.

LL wanted this painting to be reminiscent of John D. Rockefeller. The piece highlights Wiley’s talent for creating visually stimulating images with a focus on people of color. LL Cool J emits prestige combined with an edge aptly associated with the hip-hop community. The emblem in the upper right corner of the painting evokes thoughts of an affluent family’s crest. Wiley creates the perfect image of a boss with bars in the composition.

A Good Cry

Alabama artist Kerry James Marshall’s stylized, richly detailed Sob, Sob depicts a young woman of color who could be angry or sad. The artist leaves it up to us to decide what this woman is feeling. While viewing this piece, pay close attention to the titles of the books. It may inform your perspective on the subject’s state of mind, as well as the overall composition.

Simply Bedazzling

Mickalene Thomas’s Portait of Mnonja reflects the artist’s exploration of black female beauty, race, and sexuality. The media used to create the painting makes it more dynamic, with rhinestones and acrylic paint layered onto a wood panel. Combining vibrant color and texture, this is one of my favorite pieces. Thanks to the rhinestones and sequins, the subject glitters with femininity and exudes strength and confidence.

Life and Loss

North Carolina artist John Biggers painted Shotgun, Third Ward #1 in 1966. As a work created during the civil rights era, this painting captures the everyday strength and resilience of the black community. In the distance, we see the remains of a burned church. In the street, children are playing, seemingly unaware of the tragedy. In the foreground, the adults stand by and bear the burden of the loss. The artist combines strength, pain, life, and loss in this brilliant piece.

School’s Out

Allan Rohan Crite’s 1936 piece School’s Out is far more than an ordinary after-school scene full of people of color. Overall, Crite creates a stable scene with a sense of community. A closer look at the detail in the painting reveals several interactions that are far from harmonious. Some interactions occur between adults and children, others among the children only. Throughout the painting, love and kindness occur simultaneously with discord and conflict. It feels like real life, beautifully captured on canvas.

Johnson & Johnson & Johnson

To discover the work of artist William H. Johnson, you’ll need to visit two different galleries—he has three different paintings in the museum that I really love. In Young Pastry Cook and Man in a Vest, Johnson portrays people of color who seem to be aware of their status as subjects in an artistic creation. The figures are posed, poised, and prideful.

“In contrast, the painting Breakdown with Flat Tire depicts a black family engaged in a seemingly mundane task. These figures focus on the task at hand, unaware of our presence as we glimpse their lives. As different as all three pieces are, they’re all highly stylized and expressive.

See ’Em All

The National Portrait Gallery is a treasure trove of works like these. We recommend you take some time to see the full breadth of what the museum has to offer. You can see much of the gallery on the American Museum Madness Scavenger Hunt—and, of course, enjoy a great game along with the great art!