The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., has unveiled portraits of former U.S. president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama, both painted by African-American artists personally chosen by the Obamas.
The portraits were unveiled to the public Monday at the gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian group of museums. The gallery has a complete collection of presidential portraits. A second and different set of portraits of the former first couple eventually will hang in the White House.
Barack Obama’s portrait was painted by Kehinde Wiley, an artist best known for his vibrant, large-scale paintings of African-Americans. For Michelle Obama’s portrait, the gallery commissioned Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, first-prize winner in the Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.
The former president said that sitting down for his presidential portrait was a frustrating experience.
Speaking at the painting’s unveiling ceremony, Obama said he normally hates posing — that he gets impatient and starts “looking at my watch.”
But he told the crowd that working with Wiley was “a great joy.”
The former president, who personally chose Wiley, said the artist listened carefully to his suggestions — and then ignored most of them.
“He listened very thoughtfully to what I had to say before doing exactly what he always intended to do,” he said. “I tried to negotiate less grey hair but Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow it. I tried to negotiate smaller ears and struck out on that as well.”
Barack Obama said he and Wiley turned out to have much in common; both had African fathers who were largely absent from their lives and American mothers who raised them.
“I am humbled, I am honoured, I am proud,” Michelle Obama said. “Young people, particularly girls and girls of colour, in future years they will come to this place and see someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this incredible institution.”
The former president, who drew multiple laughs from the audience with his remarks, started out by praising Sherald for capturing, “the grace and beauty and charm and hotness of the woman that I love.”
The final product depicts Obama sitting in a straight-backed chair, leaning forward and looking serious while surrounded by greenery and flowers. Michelle Obama’s portrait, painted by Sherald, shows her in a black and white dress looking thoughtful with her hand on her chin.
The portraits will be installed officially and available for public viewing starting on Tuesday.