The official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama have been unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The former president chose a Yale University-trained painter Kehinde Wiley to carry out this task while Michelle chose Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald.

This is a rite for most former presidents, who get to have their portraits hanging in the museum once they are out of office. Barack and Michelle’s portraits are maybe the most anticipated portrait unveilings in history, and it also has to do with their selected artists.

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, amy sherald, National portrait gallery
The Obamas unveil portraits today. image credit: CNN

“I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow (him) to do what I asked,” Obama joked. “I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well”, joked former president Barack Obama during the unveiling ceremony.

Obama: ‘that’s pretty sharp’

The Obamas were the center of the attention on Monday as they revealed their official portraits in Washington. The 44th president of the United States was pleased with his painting, adding it was pretty sharp, though he joked saying he tried to persuade painter Kehinde Wiley to change a little bit some of his features. In his portrait, Obama appears sitting against a backdrop of green foliage.

Mr. Wiley is the first African-American artist to paint the official presidential portraits for the National Portrait Gallery. He took thousands of photographs of the Obamas to recreate the picture, which is different from the typical settings. Wiley is famous for his description of African-American posed with portraits filled with pops of color. He mixes contemporary urban culture with centuries-old postures.

He paints African Americans as famous figures in western art, but this changed a little bit in Obama’s portrait. The flowers in the back of Obama’s painting have a meaning. In fact, the chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago, which was a significant place in Obama’s political career. As well, his childhood in Hawaii was represented on the portrait with jasmines. African blue lilies are seen in the background, and they represent the origins of Barack’s late father who was born in Kenya.

Barack said that when he saw the portraits, he was struck by the degree to which they can challenge the ideas of power and privilege. Barack also admitted that nobody in his family tree had a portrait done. He realized he was impatient and that he didn’t like to pose but acknowledged that working with Wiley was a great joy.

Politics, said Obama, isn’t about “celebrating the high and the mighty and expecting that the country unfolds from the top down, but rather that it comes from the bottom up.”

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, amy sherald, National portrait gallery
Obama selected Wiley to paint his portrait. Image credit: The Hill

Michelle Obama thinks this work will have an impact on girls of color

Barack’s wife, Michelle said that unveiling her painting was a little overwhelming. She decided that Amy Sherald was the painter responsible for her portrait. Sherald is another African-American painter. She is also known for her unique style. She tends to paint in back skin tones to take away the “assigned” color of the subject.

“Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love,” Barack Obama said.

Michelle, talking about her portrait, said that she wonders about the impact Sherald’s work will have on girls and especially those of color because they will see someone who looks like them in such a prestigious institution.

“They will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution … And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls,” the former first lady said. “We have come so far,” the former first lady expressed. “And yes, as we see today, we still have a lot of work to do. But we have every reason to be hopeful and proud.”

In her portrait, Michelle is wearing a dress by fashion designer Michelle Smith. Sherald said that Michelle Obama represents an ideal to the country because she is a human being with integrity intellect, confidence, and compassion.

During the unveiling event, many members of the Obama administration reunited. Among the attendees there were former White House press secretary Josh Earnest chatting with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.); former Vice President Joe Biden; Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson; former Attorney General Eric Holder; former White House press secretary Jay Carney and his wife, journalist Claire Shipman. They were also joined by ex-Obama aide Reggie Love; former White House chef Sam Kass and his wife, CBS News’s Alex Wagner; as well, there was Steven Spielberg, who once directed Obama in a spoof of his film, “Lincoln,” for the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

Source: CNN