In precious remembrance of the near past, the official portraits of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama were revealed today in the National Portrait Gallery within the Smithsonian Institution. Mr. Obama will be remembered in history as the 44th President of the United States, and Mrs. Obama served as the First Lady of the United States during her husband’s eight-year tenure in the White House. Independent of their public life, both are esteemed lawyers who graduated from Harvard Law School.
The former president’s portrait was painted by out gay artist Kehinde Wiley. Wiley depicted the intellectual political icon—in stylish black suit and white-shirt collar unbuttoned—sitting in a chair, leaning onto his knees as if still listening to us intently. Can he hear our cries for help? Mr. Obama and the chair are among blooming, verdant foliage representing “African Blue lilies for Kenya, his father’s birthplace; jasmine for Hawaii, where Mr. Obama was born; chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, for the city where his political career began.” Symbolism of the chair (art nouveau style?) is a mystery thus far, though in a speech during today’s ceremony, Mr. Obama said one of Wiley’s first concepts was to illustrate him atop a horse.
“‘I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon,’” he remembered telling Wiley. “‘You’ve got to bring it down a touch.’ And that’s what he did.”
The portrait of the swellegant Mrs. Obama was done by Amy Sherald. Throughout her time as FLOTUS, Mrs. Obama consistently held a high approval rating, sometimes higher than her husband’s popularity. She exudes a positive balance of intelligence, grace, style, modesty and approachability. Sherald’s painting captures Mrs. Obama calmly looking at the viewer, chin leaning on her hand, haute body posture evoking the elegance that landed her on countless best-dressed lists. The portrait shows Mrs. Obama in a floor-length gown with a minimalist art pattern, a sky-blue background behind her.
The unveiling ceremony highlights the significance that the Obama portraits—of the first-ever African-American POTUS and FLOTUS—were completed by the first-ever black artists to be commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint a presidential portrait.
Kehinde Wiley, who was born in 1977 in Los Angeles, came into prominence as an artist in the early 2000s. His early work is comprised of life-size paintings of young black men decked out in hip-hop styles, yet “depicted in the old-master manner of European royal portraits.” Lately Wiley’s portrait subjects include females. An exquisitely Sapeur-attired Wiley gave a moving speech at the museum event.
“It’s all chance-driven,” Wiley said. “And, Mr. President, I want to thank you for giving me a chance, and I thank you for giving this nation a chance to experience your splendor on a global scale.”
Amy Sherald is based in Baltimore. She survived a heart transplant in 2012, which, as the National Portrait Gallery writes, translates to her art in representing “the inner strength of her subjects through a combination of calm expressions and confrontational poses,” making Mrs. Obama ideal for Sherald’s portraiture.
“I am a little overwhelmed, to say the least,” Mrs. Obama said in a speech, after helping Sherald reveal the work. “As you may have guessed, I don’t think there is anybody in my family who has ever had a portrait done, let alone a portrait that will be hanging in the National Gallery—at least as far as I know, Mom,” she said. “But all those folks who helped me be here today, they are with us physically and they are with us in spirit.”
The freshly unveiled Obama portraits will be on public view beginning Tuesday. The painting of Mr. Obama will be permanently installed in the “America’s Presidents” exhibition, while Mrs. Obama’s portrait shall hang through November 2018 in the museum’s “Recent Acquisitions” display area.