Figurative portraitists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald joined the former U.S. president and first lady in Washington, D.C. on Monday morning to reveal their respective renderings of the political power couple. Both portraits are paradigmatic of each artist’s aesthetic, and both showcase Mr. and Mrs. Obama as independently poised, powerful, and calm American icons.
Kehinde Wiley, a Brooklyn-based artist whose strikingly naturalistic portraits of contemporary African-American subjects amid magnificent art historical backgrounds have garnered international recognition, was commissioned to paint Barack Obama; while Baltimore-based Amy Sherald, the first woman to receive the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2016 for her painting titled Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance), portrayed Michelle Obama.
Wiley’s portrait depicts Barack Obama seated, leaning forward with his arms folded across his lap. Partially engulfed by a verdant background bearing flowers native to Illinois, Kenya, and Hawaii, the former president wears an expression of quiet dignity.
Sherald’s serene rendering of the former first lady employs a cooler, more muted color palette, but it powerfully communicates Michelle Obama’s beloved warmth, grace, and unwavering confidence.
The respective commissions are of particular historical importance as both Wiley and Sherald are the first African-American artists to paint the nation’s first African-American president and first lady. Both Barack and Michelle Obama also acknowledged their place as the first members of their families to be officially painted.
Barack Obama stated his admiration of Wiley’s practice, which “challenges our conventional views of power and privilege,” according to NPR; and while he rejected Wiley’s initial desire to “elevate” Obama by situating him on a horse, the former president joked that he did try “to negotiate less gray hair [and] smaller ears.” At the unveiling, he called the finished product “pretty sharp.”
In her speech at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday, Michelle Obama admitted to feeling “a little overwhelmed, to say the least.” Nodding to “young people, particularly girls and girls of color who … will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution,” the former first lady continued, “I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls.”
“Official portraits are interesting beasts because they are, of course official: they signify the status and attainments of the person portrayed,” explains the National Portrait Gallery. “But they also are deeply personal, even revelatory, portrayals that say something of the character of the man or woman who shows their face to the public.”
On Tuesday, February 13, both portraits will be exhibited to the public at the National Portrait Gallery. Wiley’s portrayal of Barack Obama will be on view in the “America’s Presidents” gallery alongside 1,600 other presidential portraits. Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama will go on view in the gallery’s “Recent Acquisitions” corridor.
“This is consequential—it’s who we as a society decide to celebrate,” Kehinde Wiley said. “This is our ability to say, ‘I matter. I was here.’ ”