Get Ready to Be Wowed | Obama Portraits Unveiled
The contemporary portraits of President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama were unveiled at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery on February 12 around 10 a.m. EST.
The National Portrait Gallery has commissioned artists to paint the portraits and likeness of former presidents since the 90s, with a complete collection of presidential portraits that is rivaled only by the White House collection.
The artists commissioned by the former first couple for their portraits, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, created works that break the mold.
Wiley, selected for former President Obama’s portrait, is the first African American artist commissioned by the Smithsonian to paint a portrait of a former president. The renowned artist is famed for his large-scale paintings depicting black men dressed in hip-hop swagger posed like European royalty — a nod to the style of the Old Masters.
“His rich, highly saturated color palette and his use of decorative patterns complement his realistic, yet expressive, likenesses,” according to the Portrait Gallery press release.
Amy Sherald, selected to paint former First Lady Michelle Obama, is no stranger to Capitol Hill. She was the first woman to win the Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition for her oil painting, Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance).
Sherald’s portraits are primarily of African Americans, whose skin tones are painted in the artist’s signature grayscale, often dressed in colorful clothing against bright monochrome backgrounds. “Sherald challenges stereotypes and probes notions of identity through her life-size paintings of African Americans,” notes the release.
More than a Likeness
The unveiling of presidential portraits does not happen every day and the Wiley and Sherald portraits are exceptional in many ways. They are the first artists of color to be commissioned in this capacity. Their works are also not mere likenesses.
Instead, they exhibit what we, as artists, know to be the best of portraiture — moving beyond straightforward depictions to capturing the essence of a sitter and making the painting uniquely one’s own. Wiley and Sherald’s ability shows that the genre of portraiture is alive and well and evolving in the best of ways.
Check out the unveiling of the portraits in the video below, and read on for key highlights from the ceremony.
An Inside Look at The Big Reveal
“Presidential portraits have a particular power to capture the public imagination. To move people to think about America’s leaders and indeed American society itself in new and unexpected ways,” said Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton during the live unveiling ceremony. “This is why the Portrait Gallery has been collecting presidential portraits for 50 years, and it’s why we have expanded that collection to include our nation’s first ladies.”
Michelle Obama Portrayed in Powerful Style
First up to unveil was the portrait of Mrs. Obama. “Dear to my heart, Mrs. Obama [continues] to be a devoted champion of the arts, and we need the arts so much every day in our lives,” stated Skorton. “As first lady, she helped give African American artists a greater presence on the walls of the white house, a commitment that her selection of Amy Sherald to paint her portrait reflects and one that we at Smithsonian here are so proud to share.”
Skorton then invites Mrs. Obama and Sherald up to unveil the portrait. As the two dropped the curtain, you see Michelle portrayed in a stunning gown, primarily in white, with bold black details and geometric pops of color. Michelle is depicted against a soft blue background, posing with her hand under her chin. On her face, a powerful yet contemplative expression.
“I was intrigued before [Sherald] walked into the room,” said Mrs. Obama during the unveiling ceremony. “I had seen her work and was blown away by the boldness of her colors and the uniqueness of her subject matter.” Mrs. Obama stated that she knew Sherald was the artist for her within just the first few sentences of their conversation, recalling how Sherald said although she was really excited to be considered for both portraits, she really wanted to work with Michelle.
“After that she and I, we started talking and Barack kind of faded into the woodwork,” noted Mrs. Obama. “There was an instant connection — that kind of sister-girl connection that I had with this woman — and that was true all the way through the process.”
Former President Obama’s Botanical Portrait Full of Meaning
Next up was the unveiling of former President Obama’s portrait. “Barack Obama was a very consequential president. He will long be the subject of admiration and study and fascination,” noted Skorton during the unveiling. “When future generations look back at this presidency, I believe Kehinde Wiley’s portrait will give them a unique window, in the way that only presidential portraits can: a window into both the man and the moment when he led with such distinction. And with that, please join me in inviting President Barack Obama and Kehinde Wiley to unveil the portrait.”
After a little tug and pull of the curtain, Wiley’s portrait was unveiled. Obama, leans slightly forward seated in a wooden chair, amidst a lush field of foliage and flowers that fills the picture plane top to bottom. He has a look of power and perseverance on his face, as he directs his gaze outward, his arms loosely crossed.
The botanicals are symbolic of places pivotal to Obama’s personal journey, the flowers representing Chicago, Hawaii and Kenya. Wiley explained during the unveiling that he is charting Obama’s path on earth through the plants weaving their way across the composition.
“There is a fight going on between [Obama] in the foreground and the plants that are sort of trying to announce themselves at his feet,” said Wiley. “Who gets to be the star of the show: the story or the man who inhabits that story? It is all chance driven; and Mr. President, I thank you for giving me the chance. And, I thank you for giving this nation a chance to experience your splendor on a global scale.”
The Former First Couple’s Response
Obama’s speech following the unveiling of the portrait led first with humor, offering a special thanks to Sherald for capturing his wife’s “hotness.” He also spoke of his sincere gratitude to Wiley, noting the similar paths he and Wiley walked, both having American mothers who raised them with “extraordinary love” and African fathers who were absent. Yet, what really impressed former President Obama about Wiley was what the artist’s work represented.
“What I was always struck by whenever I saw [Wiley’s] portraits was the degree in which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege,” said Obama. “In the way that he would take extraordinary care and precision and vision in recognizing the beauty and the grace and the dignity of the people who are so often invisible in our lives and put them on a grand stage, on a grand scale. [He] forced us to look and see them in ways that so often they were not.”
He continued, “So often out of sight and out of mind, Kehinde lifted them up and gave them a platform and said they belonged at the center of American life. And that was something that moved me deeply. Because in my small way, that is part of what I believe politics should be about is not simply celebrating the high and the mighty, expecting the country unfolds from the top down, but rather that it comes from the bottom up.”
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