This morning, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery revealed the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama that will hang in the museum’s permanent collection. Los Angeles-born artist Kehinde Wiley was commissioned to depict the former president, becoming the first African-American and openly gay artist to create a presidential portrait for the museum. Former First Lady Michelle Obama was also portrayed by a trailblazing African-American artist, Amy Sherald.
The portrait shows President Obama in a wooden chair, evocative of the Federalist-style furniture found in the White House, amid a background of bright green foliage. The painting is instantly recognizable as Wiley’s work, which frequently depicts African-American subjects in classical poses inspired by the Old Masters of the European art cannon, but modernized and surrounded by lush and colorful backgrounds.
“What I was always struck by when I saw his portraits was the degree to which they challenged our ideas of power and privilege,” President Obama said at the unveiling ceremony, complete video of which is available on the Smithsonian website.
Wiley was born and raised in South Central L.A., steeped in the hip-hop culture that informed many of his most famous paintings to date. At 11, he began formal art training, attending conservatory classes on the weekends, and soaked up everything he could from L.A.’s art museums, before moving on to study at the Art Institute of San Francisco and Yale before settling in New York.
For the portrait of Michelle Obama, Baltimore-based painter Sherald was selected from a lengthy list of potential artists. Her modern, slightly abstracted style, focused more on color and shape than photo-like realism, is considered somewhat of a departure for an official portrait of a first lady.
Both images will be on public display in the Washington, D.C. museum starting Tuesday.
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