With buzz building for months, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery recently unveiled the official portraits of President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama in Washington D.C. New York City-based artist Kehinde Wiley created the portrait of President Obama and Baltimore artist Amy Sherald was selected to paint Michelle Obama. Both Wiley and Sherald are a noteworthy change of pace from artists who typically are selected to paint presidential portraits that will hang at the Smithsonian or in the White House.
The artists were selected by the Obamas and commissioned by the Smithsonian after the former first couple reviewed dozens of portfolios.
Wiley, 41 and Sherald, 44, are both African American; their selection caused buzz and excitement and was a noted departure from the more literal and realistic portraiture style American leaders are typically depicted in.
Wiley’s portraits often feature African Americans in heroic poses and Sherald uses a bold and dramatic style of painting African American subjects with an artistically forward perspective. Those unique artistic statements are likely to set their portraits apart from many others in the gallery and at the White House.
Sherald depicted the former First Lady sitting confidently and looking the viewer in the eye wearing a large flowing white dress with black and white patterns.
“I see something bigger and more symbolic,” Sherald stated as she spoke of her work, during the ceremony at the National Portrait Gallery.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama paused to take in the portrait before delivering her remarks to the audience assembled in the large courtyard at the gallery.
“I have so many thoughts and feelings inside me now. I am humbled. I am proud…I am thankful for all of the people who came before me, before this journey,” Michelle Obama said. “There aren’t many people in my family who have had a portrait done, much less a portrait hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.”
She then paid tribute to her parents in her speech and focused on her mother sitting in the front row of the audience. Sitting close by was former Vice President Joe Biden.
Artist Kehinde Wiley depicted President Obama seated in a dark suit on a background of vibrant green leaves and lush flowers.
“We miss you guys,” President Obama said to the audience and many in the crowd responded in kind.
President Obama went on to thank Sherald for, “spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm that hotness of the woman that I love.”
President Obama also talked about the immediate connection that he shared with Wiley, noting that he and Wiley are both of African descent and had fathers who were absent from their lives.
“It’s fair to say that Kehinde and I bonded,” said President Obama.
“Kehinde’s art often takes ordinary people and elevates them, lifts them up and puts them in these fairly elaborate settings and so his initial impulse maybe, in the work, was to also elevate me and put me in these settings with partridges and scepters and thrones and chifforobes and mounting me on horses.”
Obama continued: “I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon. We’ve got to bring it down just a touch and that’s what he did.”
Wiley also delivered brief remarks.
“The ability to be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming. It doesn’t get any better than that,” said Wiley. “I was humbled by this invitation, but I was also inspired by Barack Obama’s personal story, that sense in which he and I both do have that echo of single parents, African fathers, that search for the father, that sense of twinning. There is kind of like this echo of he and I in that narrative.”
Lauren Victoria Burke is a congressional correspondent for the NNPA Newswire. Lauren also works independently as a political analyst and communications strategist. You can reach Lauren by email at LBurke007@gmail.com and on Twitter at @LVBurke.