The new portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald

The Obamas' New Official Portraits Celebrate the Power of Possibility

The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., hosted this morning's big reveal of the official paintings by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.

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Feb 12 2018, 6:21pm

The new portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald

“Let’s begin by saying wow, again,” Michelle Obama said with understatement at this morning’s broadcast unveiling of her and Barack Obama’s presidential portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The former first lady’s likeness, painted by Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, depicts her with the grayish skin tones that distinguish many of her somewhat geometric portraits of African Americans. In the life-size image, Michelle Obama wears a sleeveless white gown from designer Michelle Smith’s label Milly; it pops against a solid sky-blue background, a pattern of pleats decorated with rainbow-hued stripes. Sherald said the dress reminded her of Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian’s primary-colored grids and the quilts of Gee’s Bend: hand-sewn, richly patterned masterworks made by women in a small town in Alabama. Michelle, her hair cascading around her shoulders, rests her chin in one hand, a pensive pose reminiscent of Rodin’s famous Thinker.

Barack Obama struggled a bit with artist Kehinde Wiley to remove the black veil from his portrait. Reveal completed, he echoed his wife’s enthusiasm, saying “How about that? That’s pretty sharp,” of the seven-foot oil. The painting shows the former President in a dark suit (no tie, white shirt), seated on a simple wooden chair. He leans forward on his elbows with arms crossed, as though listening. Plants surround him: chrysanthemums, the official flower of the Obamas’ hometown of Chicago; jasmine, for Hawaii, where Obama spent his childhood; and African blue lilies in reference to his late Kenyan father. In the painting, a leaf curls over Obama’s right foot.

Noting that he “didn’t want to look like Napoleon,” Obama joked that the accoutrements that Wiley typically uses as props for his black subjects wouldn’t work so well for him. No scepter, velvet robe, or gilt finery here. Wiley, after all, is known for his Old Master-style portraiture of African Americans in regal settings—on horseback or enthroned, though maybe also wearing a tracksuit or gripping a basketball. Obama praised Wiley’s typical choice to celebrate, in his work, people who “make our food, take out the garbage,” and the way Wiley lifts them up. “In my small way, that’s what I believe politics should be about,” Obama stated, “not just celebrating the high and mighty.”

Both Sherald’s and Wiley’s voices cracked with emotion as they briefly addressed their audience. Wiley stated, “This is our ability to say I matter, I was here, the first African American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States. This is absolutely overwhelming. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Michelle Obama spoke of her relatives, none of whom had ever had a portrait of themselves painted, saying, “They were all intelligent, highly capable men and women. Their aspirations were limited because of the color of their skin.” About the import for young girls in particular of her and her husband’s images hanging in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, she continued, “They will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall…and I know the impact they will have on those girls, because I was one of them.”

Amy Sherald, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Kehinde Wiley, Barack Obama, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © Kehinde Wiley