An original painting on the cover of a magazine reminds us that we’re all human, and we’re in this together.
The September issue of Vanity Fair has a cover that will catch your eye, even from a rack of nondescript magazines. It features an original painting of Breonna Taylor in a wash of bright turquoise and teal. It’s one of the most striking magazine covers I’ve seen in a long time. And it puts the power of art on clear display.
Breonna Taylor was a young woman who was killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky back in March. She was 26. The artist commemorating her in this painting is Amy Sherald. She’s originally from Columbus,
Georgia and now lives in Baltimore. She received her Masters of Fine Arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004 and had her first solo show in 2011. After she graduated from college she waited tables to support her artistic career. She came most prominently to public attention when she was chosen to paint Michelle Obama’s official portrait.
Like she herself, her subjects are African-American, but Sherald paints their skin in shades of gray. She’s perfected a kind of limited grayscale palette for skin tones which allows her subject’s clothing to carry all the weight of the vivid color in her paintings. Her serene faces are hard to look away from. She usually poses her subjects standing straight up, facing the viewer squarely without pretension. Backgrounds are monochromatic.
Sherald had not met Breonna Taylor but said she sees her as an “American girl, she is a sister, a daughter, and a hard worker. Those are the kinds of people that I am drawn towards….” She says this portrait is her contribution to the “moment and to activism…. Producing this image,” she says, “keeps Breonna alive forever.”
About a year ago my favorite art critic Peter Schjeldahl said that Sherald’s work “revitalizes a long-languishing genre in painting by giving portraits worldly work to do and distinctive pleasures to impart.” According to him, a great portrait “makes companionable for you a person who is identified or unknown, perhaps remote from you in geography or time… different from you in ways big or small,” but what you see is a specific person, just like you yourself are. Sherald’s portraits—particularly this one of Breonna—qualify as great because they make a connection with the viewer through the simple language of humanity.
Sherald once remarked in an interview with the National Endowment for the Arts that the arts matter because “they help us see who we really are.” That’s what a great portrait can do even on the cover of a magazine. And that’s what art calls us to do as well: to really see each other.