Is Michelle Obama a Janeite? As far as I’m aware, no documentation exists to settle the question either way. But circumstantial evidence now suggests that the artist who painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait may indeed be One of Us. Amy Sherald, whose strikingly beautiful 2018 painting of the former First Lady hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, has just opened a solo exhibition in New York. And two of the eight portraits on display are named after lines from Jane Austen novels.
A painting of a young Black woman in a striped strapless dress (lower left in the photo) is titled “There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” a quote from Emma. And a painting of a young Black man in a sweater (upper left) is called “A single man in possession of a good fortune,” which is, of course, part of the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice. The single man’s sweater is “decorated with geometric forms of houses, wittily suggesting that his wealth lies in real estate while also insinuating something darker: the tactics that have kept many African-Americans from owning homes,” opines New York Times art critic Roberta Smith. Austen isn’t the only author alluded to in Sherald’s show – the name of another painting comes from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon – and there’s always a chance the artist picked her titles from a random Google search for famous quotes. (In which case, thank goodness she didn’t end up with “You have bewitched me body and soul” or some comparable atrocity.) Or maybe she's using Jane Austen for the ironic juxtaposition of nineteenth-century author with twenty-first-century subjects, rather than as an homage. But I prefer to imagine her and Michelle Obama passing the time during portrait sittings by listening together to a really good audio version of Persuasion. Now that’s a lovely picture.