The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., unveiled its official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama during a private ceremony in the museum’s Kogod Courtyard Feb. 12, one day before the paintings were placed on public view.
The former president’s portrait, entitled “Barack Obama,” was painted by New York City-based Kehinde Wiley, while the former first lady’s portrait, entitled “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,” was completed by Baltimore’s Amy Sherald.
The artworks are historic not only for depicting the first African-American president and first lady, but also for being painted by the first African-American artists ever commissioned to make official portraits of a president or first lady.
“The ability to be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming,” Wiley said during the unveiling ceremony.
Wiley and Sherald were personally selected by the Obamas, in consultation with a team of advisors.
Obama noted that he bonded with Wiley, 40, over similarities in their personal backgrounds. Both men were raised by single, American mothers, and both had African fathers who were largely absent from their lives.
The former commander in chief added that he admired the bold, often provocative nature of Wiley’s work.
“What I was always struck by whenever I saw his portraits was the degree to which they challenged our conventional view of power and privilege,” Obama said of Wiley.
The artist rose to international prominence during the early 2000s with large-scale portraits of ordinary black people that mixed grandiose tropes and poses from the art-historical canon with signifiers of contemporary African-American vernacular culture.
Whereas Wiley’s work usually aims to elevate marginalized and underrepresented people by depicting them in a fashion historically reserved for aristocrats and rulers, the Obama portrait depicts one of the world’s most famous men in an informal, accessible manner that eschews many of the typical conventions of presidential portraiture.
“I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon,” Obama recalled telling Wiley. “You’ve got to bring it down a touch!”
In the picture, Obama is seated on a wooden chair in a casual pose with his arms crossed and elbows resting on his knees. Wearing a crisp black suit with an open-collared white shirt, the president leans forward slightly to make eye contact with the viewer.
The slightly larger-than-life figure floats against a lush, colorful botanical backdrop with flowers alluding to Obama’s personal history, including Hawaiian jasmine, African blue lilies and chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago.
“In a very symbolic way, what I’m doing is charting his path on earth through those plants that sort of weave their way,” Wiley said.
Like Wiley, Sherald, 44, seeks to interweave the personal narratives of her portrait subjects, all of whom are African-American, with larger social themes.
After a late start to a career often interrupted by personal challenges, she recovered from a heart transplant in 2012 to become a rising star in the art world. In 2016, she beat out 50 finalists to win the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.
“I paint American people, and I tell American stories through the paintings I create,” Sherald said during the ceremony. “Once my paintings are complete, the model no longer lives in that painting as themselves. I see something bigger, more symbolic, an archetype.”
In her life-size portrait of Michelle Obama, the former first lady is seated wearing a long designer dress the geometric patterns of which reminded the artist of Dutch abstractionist Piet Mondrian and the quilts made by an isolated African-American community in Gee’s Bend, Alabama.
Posed before a pastel-blue background, Michelle Obama’s skin is rendered in Sherald’s trademark grayscale tone, a device the artist has said she uses to problematize received notions of color and race. Her chin resting on her hand, the former first lady’s visage confidently meets the viewer’s gaze.
After paying homage to her forbears whose “dreams and aspirations were limited because of the color of their skin,” Michelle Obama expressed hope that the portrait would empower and inspire those who will follow in her footsteps.
“I’m … thinking about all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place, and they will look up, and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution,” she said. “I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls.”
“You exist in our minds, in our hearts in the way that you do because we can see ourselves in you,” Sherald remarked. “What you represent to this country is an ideal.”
Obama heaped praised upon Sherald’s depiction of his wife.
“Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm – and hotness – of the woman that I love,” he declared.
Wiley’s portrait of Obama is on permanent display in the museum’s second floor “America’s Presidents” gallery, while Sherald’s painting of Michelle Obama is currently installed in the “Recent Acquisitions” gallery on the first floor.
Pentagram Staff Photojournalist Francis Chung can be reached at email@example.com.