Amy Sherald is a name synonymous with some of the best-known paintings of African-American portraiture that have transformed the genre and its use of color in redefining the way we approach traditional ways of creating. Amy Sherald is regarded as one of the most influential and famous American artists of the current era, whose use of grayscale hues to trace the details of her models leaves us with many intriguing points of conversation. In this article, we will unpack Amy Sherald’s biography, while introducing you to the artist’s style and famous paintings that changed important narratives in Western society. Keep reading for all you need to know about Amy Sherald’s art!
Table of Contents
- 1 African-American Representation: Behind Amy Sherald’s Art
- 2 Exploring Famous Amy Sherald Artwork
- 3 Frequently Asked Questions
African-American Representation: Behind Amy Sherald’s Art
|Date of Birth
|30 August 1973
|Associated Movements, Themes, and Styles
|Contemporary art, simplified Realism, portraiture, race, color, stereotypes of African-American culture, identity, and African-American portraiture
|Painting and photography
Who is the famous American painter who paints the skin of her sitters in gray? You may recognize the work of Amy Sherald from her famous portrait of Michelle Obama, which was created in 2018. Amy Sherald’s career as an American painter is marked by her ongoing mission to challenge existing stereotypes surrounding African-American cultures while producing portraits that involve her expert handling of grisaille to stimulate questions around the Western conventions of skin color and race in the genre of portraiture and the history of painting.
In 2016, Sherald won the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition with her groundbreaking painting Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance), which etched her name in the history books as the first African-American artist to win the prize awarded by the National Portrait Gallery. However, there is more to the American artist than her public success and recognition.
Below, we will dive into Amy Sherald’s biography to take a closer look at some of the most interesting details about the artist’s life, as well as how this contributed to her art and style.
Early Life and Education
Amy Sherald was born in Columbus Georgia in 1973 and developed her interests in art since childhood. Sherald embraced drawing by inserting images at the end of her sentences to illustrate her texts and soon, she discovered that she was to embrace art as a career. One of the most influential moments during her childhood was her visit to the Columbus Museum and her observation of a painting titled Object Permanence by Bo Bartlett, who included the figure of a Black man in the painting. This first encounter with a person of color who reflected an aspect of her world was pivotal in shaping her passion.
According to Sherald’s comments on her experience, she went through a revelatory moment that led her to recognize that she was, in fact, able to make such an impact through art.
While Sherald’s parents wished for a more traditional career in medicine, Sherald was only ever more motivated by her mother’s discouragement. At the same time, Sherald identified her mother’s history as a Black woman from Alabama, whose world was shaped by the survivalist lifestyle that most African-American groups in the 1930s faced. Sherald’s perspective with her parents did not leave her with resentment, instead, she viewed her mother as the perfect mother for her to prove herself to and become the woman she is today.
Sherald graduated from St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School and attended Clark Atlanta University, where she enrolled in a painting class at Spelman College. It was at the college that Sherald met the art historian Arturo Lindsay, whose own practice revolved around the influence of African-American cultures on the Americas. After obtaining her degree in painting in 1997 and completing her apprenticeship with Lindsay, she enrolled at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she pursued her master’s. Here, Sherald developed her skills alongside Grace Hartigan, an Abstract Expressionist who taught Sherald her drip painting technique. Sherald later obtained an Honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts in 2021.
Early Career and Core Themes
Amy Sherald’s early art career was predominantly located in Baltimore, where her commitment to conveying the contemporary African-American experience in portraiture developed. Inspired by the late Barkley L. Hendricks, Amy Sherald’s approach to portraiture involved her adoption of large canvases while working with photographs of strangers whom she met on the streets. Her intense motivation to become a painter included her journey as a waitress until the age of 38, followed by her participation in various international artist-in-residence programs and curated exhibitions in Panama and Peru.
Sherald also taught art at the Baltimore City Detention Center and had created more than 30 artworks since 2008 with her most notable works culminating from her 2012 shift towards the use of grayscales.
Sherald’s use of grayscale tones as a replacement for traditional flesh colors was an intentional decision that targeted her criticism of previous depictions of African American people in art and challenged perceptions of race. Her will to expand the limited perceptions of African-American people was also informed by her experience of a segregated community in Columbus, Georgia.
One of the most profound influences in Amy Sherald’s paintings was her experience as a child in the school system and growing up in a predominantly white area, where she was one of a handful of African-American students. The complexity of her identity was also felt in her appearance and skin color as having lighter hair and skin, which contributed to her heightened self-consciousness. Sherald also recalls her mother’s words to act and speak a certain way when attending school since she was “different” from everyone around her, making her quite conscious of her race and culture.
This experience fueled Sherald’s intention for creating paintings that sought to rectify the stereotypes placed on Black people in the South, who in her experience, were reduced to a singular narrative, and thus informed her will to produce alternative and new narratives through portraiture. Amy Sherald’s paintings were also influenced by the black-and-white photographic portraits of W.E.B. DuBois’s portfolio, which informed her unique style, as well as 16th-century painters like Hans Holbein and her former tutor Odd Nerdrum. Through her portraits, Sherald invited viewers to engage with subjects of race and the complexities of her sitters as she explores the intimate nuances of the lives of Black individuals. Furthermore, her artistic process encapsulates her inner circle who participate in her photography sessions and form the foundation of her paintings.
Special Exhibitions and Recognition
Amy Sherald’s biography is jam-packed with many successes that reflect the artist’s hard work in the art scene and unwavering commitment to her artistic mission. In 2016, Sherald won the Outwin Boochever Prize awarded by the National Portrait Gallery, which propelled her toward further international recognition. Amy Sherald’s artwork Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) was praised for her execution of form and color, which directly addressed the stereotypes of African-American models in painting while producing a psychological effect. Her painting was selected among the 2,500 other applicants. Sherald hosted her first solo exhibition in 2018 at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and also installed a mural at the Baltimore Parkway Theatre.
Two years later, Sherald was also awarded the High Museum of Art’s David C. Driskell Prize. In 2017, Sherald was selected by the First Lady, Michelle Obama, to create an official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. Obama recalled her encounter with Sherald and described her work as unique in subject and demonstrating a boldness in color that blew her away.
In a 2020 exhibition, Amy Sherald released a series of intimate portraits that captured the personalities of Black women in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her approach to the show earned her much recognition for her signature use of grisaille and experimentation with gouache, culminating in the title Womanist is to Feminist as Purple is to Lavender, as inspired by a quote by Alice Walker. The show was recognized for Sherald’s depiction of Black women engaged in leisurely activities, which marked a shift from her former exploration of formal settings. The relaxed atmosphere of her work sparked attention since it also saw the representation of Black women in a light where they had previously been underrepresented.
The Significance of Amy Sherald’s Art
Of the most significant aspects of Sherald’s work is that her painting approach and representation of African American women is incredibly impactful to establishing a contemporary history where women who were previously underrepresented can be seen in a light that is unskewed by Western stereotypes. This is significant for future generations to recognize the importance of representation in art and how one can use their platform and artistic experience to course-correct crucial historical issues such as those rooted in representation and race.
In studying Western and European-centric art histories, one also recognized the role of portraiture in immortalizing and celebrating figures of the past as part of history or the wealthy elite who had access to historicize themselves. Amy Sherald’s exploration of portraiture to explore African-American identity, culture, and injustice has influenced many young contemporary artists to do the same. One can start to interrogate alternative views and gazes of exploring representation and self through the lens of unconventionality and culture.
Exploring Famous Amy Sherald Artwork
Amy Sherald is not only an iconic contemporary portraitist but also a survivor of congestive heart failure. Sherald received a heart transplant at age 39 and even resorted to a four-year break from producing art to take off two of her family members who fell ill.
Below, we will unpack the top three famous paintings by Amy Sherald to give you some insight into her core themes and how she addresses them.
Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) (2013)
|Oil on canvas
|137.2 x 109.5 x 6.4
|Where It Is Housed
|Collection of Frances and Burton Reifler, National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C., United States
Sherald’s award-winning painting Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) was inspired by a photograph that Sherald took during a lengthy photo session where the artist waited patiently for her sitter to relax before shooting the image. The painting itself was inspired by the motifs from Alice in Wonderland, as seen in the woman’s teacup and dress, which set up a world of fantasy while addressing her main subject of race and skin color through such a “fantasy”, where one can be seen beyond the color of one’s own skin.
The painting is clever and direct in its references, relaxed atmosphere, and confrontational gaze, which poses more of a question to the viewer to contemplate the notion of “being seen”, as is. Sherald’s choice for painting her sitters in gray is tied to the idea that her sitters should serve as mirrors to the viewer, such that their skin color does not detract from their familiarity and allows for her subjects to become “universal”.
First Lady Michelle Obama (2017)
|Oil on canvas
|183.2 x 152.7 x 7
|Where It Is Housed
|National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C., United States
This famous Amy Sherald painting was originally titled Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama and was created from Sherald’s photograph of Michelle Obama, which she shot in two 90-minute sessions with the First Lady. What makes the portrait stand out is not only Sherald’s signature grayscale palette on Obama’s skin but the authentic nature of Obama in the image, which appears relaxed.
According to Sherald, she did not invite individual commissions but instead focused on everyday people in the streets. Sherald felt a sense of familiarity with Obama in comparison to those she encountered in her normal practice, as someone who was simply being herself. Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama thus made her image accessible to people and resulted in a striking and unique depiction of Obama.
Breonna Taylor Portrait (2020)
|Oil on linen
|137.2 x 109.2 x 6.4
|Where It Is Housed
|Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C., United States
Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor, who was tragically killed by three police officers at her home, was also acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Speed Art Museum, to which Sherald followed up with a $1 million grant program in the name of Taylor at the University of Louisville in 2022. The famous portrait of Breonna Taylor depicts the young woman in Sherald’s gray skin style as she gazed at the viewer while dressed in a turquoise dress.
The color of her dress also blends into the background while her face stands out in a proud pose. The founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lonnie G. Bunch III, also supported the necessity and importance of the portrait, stating that it captured the pain and joy of the situation, which gave Taylor a voice and let the viewers recognize her as a figure who died too early due to the negligence and unjustified brutality displayed by the police system toward African-American people.
The art and life of Amy Sherald is certainly one that should inspire you to take a stand for important issues that you believe in. Through Sherald’s innovative deflection from traditional portrait conventions and her confrontation of race and identity, the American artist has provided a profound contribution to art history. Additionally, Sherald’s work has also left an invaluable legacy on the representation of people of color in art, which was previously reserved in portraiture for the wealthy population. In studying the works of important contemporary artists like Sherald, you can begin to think of new ways to address topics that have perhaps been stagnant for too long.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who Is Amy Sherald?
Amy Sherald is a famous American painter who is widely recognized for her portraits of African-American people, whom she photographs and then paints. Sherald is also the creator of Michelle Obama’s official portrait housed at the National Portrait Gallery, and specializes in Realism painting.
What Are the Key Themes in Amy Sherald’s Paintings?
American portrait artist Amy Sherald is recognized for addressing various socio-political issues concerning race, identity, African-American culture, and representation in art. Other themes that Sherald explores include autobiographical portraits, the representation of African-American bodies, skin color, and injustices against Black culture.
What Is Amy Sherald’s Most Famous Painting?
The most famous painting by Amy Sherald is considered to be her award-winning portrait, Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance), which was created in 2013 and won the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. The award was granted by the National Portrait Gallery and led to Sherald’s increased recognition in the art world.
What Is the Value of an Amy Sherald Painting?
Amy Sherald’s paintings are estimated to be worth up to $4.2 million on auction alone. Her most expensive painting sold at auction was The Bathers (2015), which sold for $4,265,000 after receiving an estimate of between $150,000 and $200,000.
Jordan Anthony is a film photographer, curator, and arts writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. Anthony schooled in Durban and graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, with a Bachelor of Art in Fine Arts. During her studies, she explored additional electives in archaeology and psychology, while focusing on themes such as healing, identity, dreams, and intuitive creation in her Contemporary art practice. She has since worked and collaborated with various professionals in the local art industry, including the KZNSA Gallery in Durban (with Strauss & Co.), Turbine Art Fair (via overheard in the gallery), and the Wits Art Museum.
Anthony’s interests include subjects and themes related to philosophy, memory, and esotericism. Her personal photography archive traces her exploration of film through abstract manipulations of color, portraiture, candid photography, and urban landscapes. Her favorite art movements include Surrealism and Fluxus, as well as art produced by ancient civilizations. Anthony’s earliest encounters with art began in childhood with a book on Salvador Dalí and imagery from old recipe books, medical books, and religious literature. She also enjoys the allure of found objects, brown noise, and constellations.
Cite this Article
Jordan, Anthony, “Amy Sherald – Portraits of Power and Identity.” Art in Context. January 28, 2024. URL: https://artincontext.org/amy-sherald/
Anthony, J. (2024, 28 January). Amy Sherald – Portraits of Power and Identity. Art in Context. https://artincontext.org/amy-sherald/