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Left: Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley (2018) (image © 2018 Kehinde Wiley, courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution); right: Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama by Amy Sherald (2018) (image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

This morning, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled the official, highly anticipated portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, painted, respectively, by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. The former first couple and the artists were in attendance at the ceremony, held at the museum, to mark a historic moment: the paintings — beyond capturing the first black president and First Lady — represent the first-ever official presidential portraits executed by black painters.

Wiley’s portrait of the 44th president depicts him seated against a lush backdrop of foliage, embodying the nobility and gravitas for which the New York-based painter is known. Upon its unveiling, Obama quipped that he looked “pretty sharp” and added, “I tried to negotiate less gray hair, and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well.”

Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama is more subdued but equally elegant, portraying her seated against a light blue backdrop, in a graphic dress by designer Michelle Smith. Michelle Obama said she was “thinking about all the young people — particularly girls and girls of color — who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up, and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall.”

The lesser known of the two artists (until she received this commission), Sherald, a Baltimore-based artist, was the first woman to ever win the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. “A personification of resilience herself,” as the museum describes her, “Sherald conveys the inner strength of her subjects through a combination of calm expressions and confrontational poses.”

Barack Obama had a few choice words of praise for her as well, thanking Sherald during the ceremony “for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love.”

The two portraits will be on view at the museum beginning tomorrow. While Wiley’s will join the institution’s permanent exhibition of presidential portraits, Sherald’s will hang in its corridor of recent acquisitions through November 2018. In the meantime, everyone on Twitter has an opinion about the paintings. Below are some initial reactions:

https://twitter.com/MsPackyetti/status/963078607622037505
https://twitter.com/dodaistewart/status/963078381817483266
https://twitter.com/N_du_Time/status/963081070873890816
https://twitter.com/kashanacauley/status/963122226131357697?ref_src=twcamp%5Eshare%7Ctwsrc%5Eios%7Ctwgr%5Ecom.tinyspeck.chatlyio.share%7Ctwcon%5E7100%7Ctwterm%5E0

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

7 replies on “Official Obama Portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald Were Just Unveiled”

  1. “That doesn’t even look like a Michelle. A portrait should look like the subject.”

    “You’re racist for saying that.”

    “Kehinde can’t paint space or ground planes, so he masks hit with ornamentation. Here it’s foliage. He also probably had someone else paint that part anyway. Actually, he may have had the entire painting done in China.”

    “You’re a racist for saying that.”

    “The paintings aren’t good.”

    “Racist!”

    “_(ツ)_/¯”

  2. I love both portraits EXCEPT for the terrible dress the artist has put Michelle into – surely not an actual garment ? Maybe there’s some hidden ‘meaning’ in the fabric, but to me it just takes away from the top half of the portrait, which is all that we needed & is beautiful !
    Love Obama for his honest annoyance over his own ears ! Yes we would all hate to have those ears too – but what character he shows in grimacing over his own little annoyances – and such a great contrast to what is going on right now – I miss them both ! Thanks for 8 lovely years !

    1. The dress is meant to evoke traditional African-American quilts, and specifically the quilt masterpieces made by the women of Gee’s Bend, a small remote black community in Alabama.

      1. Thanks for the help on that – I had missed that snippet of news, my bad ! Great for the artist to recognize that little community !

  3. I am not sure about BO’s portrait, but I like MO’s portrait a lot. In a way it reminds me of Lucien Freud’s portrait of the Queen, (he painted himself as queen). Sherald’s portrait of MO also reminds me of a very sophisticated form of folk art, crystal clear but where its stylizing smooths out differences.

  4. “…they will look up, and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall.”

    Yes, if they’re wearing a couture gown and are gray in color.

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