WASHINGTON, DC — The official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama joined the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery today, and they have attracted far more attention than such commissions typically do. The unveiling, which took place this morning in Washington, DC, attracted a mix of celebrities, art word leaders, and political figures, including Shonda Rhimes, Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg, as well as former Vice President Joe Biden, former Attorney General Eric Holder, and former Obama adviser David Axelrod.
Barack Obama chose Kehinde Wiley to paint his portrait, while Michelle Obama chose Amy Sherald — selections that diverge from past tradition on a number of levels. The artists are the first African American artists commissioned for the task. They also both work in a far more contemporary style than artists selected previously. While Chuck Close created a well-known portrait of Bill Clinton, Clinton’s official portrait was painted by traditional portraitist Nelson Shanks. George W. Bush’s portrait for the National Portrait Gallery was painted by Robert Anderson, a traditional artist who was a classmate of Bush’s at Yale.
The process for selecting Wiley and Sherald began during Obama’s last year in office as President. The Obamas worked with curators and staff from the National Portrait Gallery, in addition to getting advice from friends, including White House curator William Allman, Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and designer Michael Smith. After developing a list of potential artists, they invited them to the White House for meetings before making their final decisions. At the unveiling, Michelle Obama recounted her White House meeting with Amy Sherald: “There was an instant connection, that kind of sister-girl connection that I had with this woman.”
The Obamas have stood apart among first families as uniquely and unusually culturally omnivorous, aware, and innovative. From their installation of modern and contemporary work in the White House to Obama’s regular release of end-of-year book and music lists, the Obamas broke new ground in their embrace of contemporary and popular culture and in their public support for up-and-coming artists and designers of color. In remarks after the unveiling, Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, noted that the Obamas came regularly after hours to the museum with their daughters during Obama’s time in office. They likely saw Amy Sherald’s work when it was on display during the Outwin Beecher Competition Exhibition, which the artist won in 2016. It’s no surprise, then, that the Obamas saw the creation of the portraits not just as an opportunity to shape their own representation and place in history, but also as a way of supporting two innovative black artists and, perhaps, as a way of challenging the conventions of presidential portraiture.
Kehinde Wiley’s signature portraits are devoted to depicting everyday African Americans transposed into extraordinary settings inspired by historic paintings of aristocrats. Obama acknowledged the risks of asking Wiley to adapt his style for a presidential portrait, joking that he asked the artist not to give him a scepter or mount him on a horse: “I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon. You’ve got to bring it down just a touch.”
The Obamas both noted that they were the first members of their families to have a portrait commissioned. They also noted the significance of their portraits: they are the first of a black president and black first lady to be commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery.
Mrs. Obama specifically described the significance of the portraits to young visitors: “I’m also 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 of this great American institution and I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.”
Wiley also referenced his childhood, describing it as a driving force behind his work: “Growing up as a kid in South Central Los Angeles, going to the museums in LA, there weren’t too many people who happened to look like me in those museums, on those walls.” He sees his own practice as a means to correct that and, as he described it, “to find places where people who happen to look like me…do have the ability to express their state of grace on the grand narrative scale of museum space.”
Sherald also spoke to the symbolic importance that Michelle Obama has played throughout her public life. “The act of Michelle Obama being her authentic self became a profound statement that engaged all of us. Because what you represent to this country is an ideal. A human being with integrity intellect, confidence, and compassion.” Mrs. Obama beamed as she described Sherald’s work: “She is well on her way to distinguishing herself as one of the great artists of her generation.”
Now that the portraits have been unveiled, they’re sure to attract debate. In her statement, Mrs. Obama acknowledged the challenges that Wiley and Sherald faced when creating the commissions. “To paint a portrait of Michelle and Barack Obama is like cooking Thanksgiving dinner for strangers,” she explained. “Everybody has an idea of what Thanksgiving dinner is supposed to taste like. The dressing that you love is the dressing you love, you don’t want other stuff in it. And that’s what it’s like. People know what they feel and think and how they see us and Amy had to interpret that.”