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: