The Obamas are history makers, and we were reminded of this fact at the recent unveiling of the Barack and Michelle Obama portraits at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Officially revealed on February 12, the contemporary paintings represent four firsts; the first official presidential portrait of an African-American president that’s painted by an African-American artist, Kehinde Wiley, as well as the first portrait of an African-American First Lady that’s painted by an African-American woman artist, Amy Sherald.
If those firsts weren’t significant enough, the former president further distills why their choices were so meaningful. “When you choose an artist to describe your likeness, you have the opportunity to shape, quite literally, how someone sees the office of the American presidency,” he writes. “And how they might see themselves in that presidency.”
Here’s the President Obama portrait painted by Kehinde Wiley:
Today, @KehindeWiley and @ASherald became the first black artists to create official presidential portraits for the Smithsonian. To call this experience humbling would be an understatement. Thanks to Kehinde and Amy, generations of Americans — and young people from all around the world — will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this country through a new lens. They’ll walk out of that museum with a better sense of the America we all love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Inclusive and optimistic. And I hope they’ll walk out more empowered to go and change their worlds.
The Obama portrait artist shares things in common with the 44th president. “Both of us had an American mother who raised us, an African father who was absent from our lives, and a search to figure out just where we fit in,” Mr. Obama reveals. “I wrote a book about that journey, because I can’t paint. But I suspect a lot of Kehinde’s journey is reflected in his art. I was struck by the way his portraits challenge the way we view power and privilege; the way he endows his subjects, men and women often invisible in everyday life, with a level of dignity that not only makes them visible, but commands our attention.”
Wiley’s painting is dazzling in its use of color and a striking break from tradition. While the other portraits of former presidents feature them against a muted backdrop, Mr. Obama is pictured against a lush wall of foliage. Wiley’s choices in leaves are not arbitrary, either; jasmine represents Hawaii (Mr. Obama’s birthplace), African blue lilies signify his father’s Kenyan heritage, and the chrysanthemum is Chicago’s official flower.
Here’s how artist Amy Sherald depicted former First Lady Obama:
Sherald depicts Mrs. Obama in her signature grayscale skin tone as she’s clad in an Op art-inspired dress by designer Michelle Smith. While some have criticized that the painting doesn’t accurately capture Mrs. Obama’s likeness, Sherald has indeed honed in on what makes the former First Lady such a beloved figure. Posed with her hand under her chin, Mrs. Obama wears an expression that’s both self-assured and incredibly wise. Sherald has painted her as the epitome of grace.
Like her husband, the former First Lady recognizes the significance that her portrait will have for years to come. “This is all a little bit overwhelming,” she writes, “especially when I think about all of the young people who will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this, including so many young girls and young girls of color who don’t often see their images displayed in beautiful and iconic ways. I am so proud to help make that kind of history.”
As a young girl, even in my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined this moment. Nobody in my family has ever had a portrait – there are no portraits of the Robinsons or the Shields from the South Side of Chicago. This is all a little bit overwhelming, especially when I think about all of the young people who will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this, including so many young girls and young girls of color who don’t often see their images displayed in beautiful and iconic ways. I am so proud to help make that kind of history. But the fact is that none of this would be possible without the extraordinary artist and woman behind this portrait, @asherald. Thank you, Amy – it was a joy to work with you and get to know you.
The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery will permanently display President Obama’s portrait in their “America’s Presidents” exhibition. Mrs. Obama will be displayed in the museum’s “Recent Acquisitions” wing through November 2018.