The Smithsonian Unveils Official Obama Portraits

The newly unveiled portraits of former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama and artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, at a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. | Image credit: Associated Press, Image source:
The newly unveiled portraits of former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama and artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, at a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. | Image credit: Associated Press, Image source:

On February 13, 2018, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled its commissioned portraits of former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.

The LA Times would describe the paintings as “cheerfully bucking the official portrait trend of instantly forgettable painterly pablum.”

Artistically Vibrant and Strikingly Refreshing

In early October 2017, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery announced that it had commissioned Amy Sherald for the official portrait of the former First Lady, and Kehinde Wiley for the likeness of former President Barack Obama. Not only are the Obamas the first Presidential couple to have their portraits hang in the National Portrait Gallery, but Wiley and Sherald are the first African-American artists to paint official presidential portraits.

Wiley would tell The Guardian in 2017 that the humbling invitation to paint Obama is “a huge responsibility.” Sherald also expressed how much the selection has meant to her, describing the former First Lady to The New York Times as “an archetype that a lot of women can relate to — no matter shape, size, race or color. We see our best selves in her.”

The Smithsonian would pay for both works with $500,000 in private donations, an amount that covers everything including each artist’s fees. The Portrait Gallery’s director, Kim Sajet, divulged back in 2017 that there was no prescribed format for an official portrait, only that it had to be a painting. They cannot be works on paper and that the artists must “be respectful of both the person and the position they hold.”

At left, the portrait of Mr. Obama by Kehinde Wiley, and the portrait of Mrs. Obama by Amy Sherald. | Image source: NY Times

Breaking the Rules

The unveiling of the portraits would reveal two strikingly contrasting approaches. Kehinde Wiley’s composition of Obama is reminiscent of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln who is also seated. In the Obama painting, however, he is staring straight ahead with a rather serious look on his face. The New Yorker has described the expression as “serious, even slightly ruthless, around the eyes, but vaguely amused.”

Obama sits in a wooden chair. Behind him, a backdrop of foliage. Breaking up the greenery are pops of color from the flowers that represent meaningful places to the former president – the Hawaii Jasmine, African Lilies from Kenya, and Chicago’s official flower, the Chrysanthemum.

The painting of the former First Lady is a sharp contrast from her husband’s. In Michelle Obama’s painting by Sherald, she is wearing a Michelle Smith dress and painted against a bright blue background. Many have argued that the focus has been on her dress, which draws the eyes away from Michelle Obama herself. Her skin tone is almost grey, a noticeable difference from the richness of color from her husband’s portrait.

Former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and artist Amy Sherald unveil her portrait during a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, on February 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. | Image credit: Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Image source:

Historic Legacy Lives On

The reception for both paintings has been mixed. Some find it refreshing that the two artists have rejected tradition by using such vivid colors and unconventional backgrounds. However, many are quick to point out that the Michelle Obama portrait doesn’t look like her and that the designer dress she wears commands too much attention. Then there are those quick to poke fun that the marijuana plant is missing from the former President’s background as one of his favorite flora. And some are concerned whether the paintings have accurately captured the Obamas’ legacy.

However, it’s important to mention that both artists were handpicked by the Obamas. And both Barack and Michelle were both quite pleased at the unveiling. Obama described his portrait as “pretty sharp” while his wife was “a little overwhelmed, to say the least.” 

And it’s safe to say that Obama was also captivated by Michelle’s portrait, telling Sherald, “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.” 

Many people may or may not like the Obamas’ artistic choices. However, the fact remains that they are both undoubtedly history-making artistic trailblazers, gracing the walls of National Portrait Gallery – his, for the permanent “Hall of Presidents” and hers, for the museum’s collection – both works of art as uniquely striking as the two extraordinary sitters themselves.


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