Former US President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama, like those before them, have had their portraits formally painted to hang at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The two refreshingly contemporary depictions of the Obamas were unveiled this morning.
Obama Presidential Portraits
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House. The gallery began to acquire the likenesses of American presidents shortly after the museum was established by Congress in 1962 and continues to grow. The Portrait Gallery’s mission is to tell the American story through the individuals who have shaped it.
The two portraits were commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and painted by artist Kehinde Wiley—best known for his vibrant, large-scale paintings of African Americans and by Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, first-prize winner of the Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.
above: Former US President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama stand next to their newly unveiled portraits during a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, on February 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Wiley, known for his stately paintings that depict contemporary African Americans in poses that reference art history, chose to portray former President Barack Obama in a comparatively relaxed fashion.
He is sitting in a chair, leaning forward, wearing a black suit, plain white shirt, and no tie. The chair is almost engulfed by a lush background of botanicals, which includes the state flower of Chicago and other plants that are native to Hawaii and Kenya. “In a very symbolic way, what I’m doing is charting his path on Earth through those plants that weave their way through,” Wiley told the crowd at this morning’s unveiling.
Both former President Barack and former first lady Michelle have had their likeness immortalized by several artists. The well-known Hope painting by Shepard Fairey and a portrait of Michelle by Mickalene Thomas both hang in the National Portrait Gallery.
Amy Sherald, who won the $25,000 first prize in the gallery’s 2016 portrait competition, presented Michelle Obama in the artist’s signature grayscale palette wearing a dramatic, geometric gown. Her dress, by American designer Milly, is meant to evoke both the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and the dazzling quilts by Gee’s Bend, a remote community of black artists and quilters in Alabama.
“The act of Michelle Obama being her authentic self became a profound statement that engaged all of us,” Sherald said. “Because what you represent to this country is an ideal.” (For his part, Barack Obama praised Sherald for capturing the “grace, intelligence, beauty, charm, and hotness of the woman that I love.”)
You can view more Presidential Portraits at the Smithsonian online here