Barack And Michelle Obama Unveil Their History-Making Official Portraits At The National Portrait Gallery

“How about that,” Obama said as he saw his portrait. “That’s pretty sharp.”

The Hall of Presidents at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. is more complete today, Feb. 12, with the unveiling of the official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama.

At that event, the Obamas joined the artists they commissioned to reveal the massive paintings. For his part, the 44th President had enlisted Kehinde Wiley, a Yale University-trained painter known for his portraits of Black individuals posed heroically in Old Master-like tableaus with vibrant backgrounds. His portrait of Obama depicts the 56-year-old seated in an ornately carved wooden chair amid green foliage and brightly-colored flowers.

"How about that," Obama said as he saw the painting. "That's pretty sharp."

Since leaving the Oval Office, Obama has stayed in the public eye, inspiring youth leadership and civic engagement through his public appearances and weighing in on current issues through his social media accounts. Now he's focusing on his recently-launched Obama Foundation, which seeks to "equip civic innovators, young leaders, and everyday citizens with the skills and tools they need to create change in their communities." The foundation is also overseeing the construction of the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.

And at some point in that time, the former commander-in-chief posed while Wiley shot "thousands and thousands" of photos of him, as the artist told The Guardian this November. At the unveiling, the former president said he and Wiley bonded easily and he admires the artist. "What I was always struck by when I saw his portraits was the degree to which they challenged our ideas of power and privilege," he said.

Speaking extemporaneously, Obama kept the assembled crowd laughing with his wisecracks. "I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde's artistic integrity would not allow [him] to do what I asked," he quipped. "I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that, as well."

Michelle, meanwhile, unveiled a portrait of herself painted by Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, another Black artist known for bold portraiture. Sherald often paints Black individuals with gray skin tones to take away her subjects' assigned "color," as CNN reports. In her portrait, Michelle is painted mostly in grayscale with pops of red, pink, and yellow on her flowing, geometric printed dress. Her nails match the sky blue of the portrait's background.

During his speech, the former President lauded his wife's portrait artist. "Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love," he said.

Michelle has spent the last year continuing her East Wing efforts to make youth in America healthier and girls and women around the world better educated and more empowered. In her speech at the unveiling, for instance, Michelle speculated her official portrait will inspire girls of color. "They will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution," she said. "And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls."

Notably, Wiley and Sherald are the first Black artists commissioned to paint official presidential portraits by the National Portrait Gallery.

In an op-ed for CNN, United States Artists president and CEO Deana Haggag commended the former first couple on "[using] every opportunity at their disposal to push contemporary life and culture forward," these portraits included.

"Both Wiley and Sherald are contemporary American painters with a gift for honoring the tradition of their craft while pushing its boundaries in true style," Haggag wrote. "Much like the Obamas, they show a propensity for balancing the expected with the edgy, offering a refreshing — and much needed — shift in the traditions of presidential portraiture. Today marks yet another instance where the art world has chosen to move with society rather than allowing it to stagnate."

Cover image via The White House / Pete Souza.


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