President Barack Obama will now join his predecessors in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Today, the museum unveiled the president’s official portrait, painted by the New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley, along with Michelle Obama’s, by the Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald. Both Obamas’ paintings mark the first official presidential portraits done by black artists.
Wiley’s Obama is a hyperrealistic portrait of the president, who leans forward in a wooden chair against a thriving leafy backdrop that threatens but does not overwhelm his heroic form. Obama’s face is picture-precise and his crossed arms make him the image of seriousness even as the vines curl up around his feet. The flowers amongst the tangle have symbolic significance: African blue lilies, for Obama’s Kenyan roots, jasmine, for his birthplace in Hawaii, and chrysanthemums, for Chicago, where he met his wife and where his road to the presidency began.
"How about that? That's pretty sharp!" Barack Obama on Kehinde Wiley's portrait unveiling. pic.twitter.com/Gmu7OyEI1S
— Megan McDonough (@mgnmcdonough) February 12, 2018
Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama puts her in a color-block gown with a pastel background, presenting the former first lady as a glowing bastion of thoughtful elegance. In his remarks following the unveiling, Obama thanked Sherald “for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love.”