Barack and Michelle Obama re-emerged on the public stage Monday in Washington, only this time for an event that has nothing to do with politics.
The former first couple’s official portraits were unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, a rite of passage for most former presidents, all of whom have their portraits hanging in the museum.
These are perhaps the most anticipated presidential portrait unveilings to date, due in large part to the artists the Obamas selected.
Dozens of friends and supporters, including former Vice President Joseph Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Senior Adviser David Axelrod, gathered in the atrium of the gallery for the ceremony. Among those attending were Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, and Gayle King.
Artist Kehinde Wiley, a Yale University-trained painter famous for his depiction of African-Americans posed in the style of Old Master paintings, regal, formal and filled with pops of color. Wiley is known for large, colorful paintings of African-American subjects, painted the former president’s portrait, which will be displayed in the museum’s America’s Presidents exhibition. The seven-foot portrait features a background of flowers, including chrysanthemums, the official flower of the Obamas’ hometown of Chicago; jasmine, for Hawaii, where Obama spent his childhood; and African blue lilies to reference his late Kenyan father.
Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait, who was the first woman to win the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, is known for conveying “the inner strength of her subjects through a combination of calm expressions and confrontational poses,” the Smithsonian noted. Her portrait of the former first lady features gray skin tones that are a distinctive aspect of a majority of her paintings. Michelle Obama is wearing a dress by designer Michelle Smith’s label Milly, and the geometric colors were inspired by Piet Mondrian.
“My approach to portraiture is conceptual,” Sherald said at the unveiling. She said that the act of the former first lady “being herself” was a statement.
Michelle Obama said that she was “humbled. I am honored. I’m proud, but most of all so incredibly grateful to all the people who came before me in this journey.” As the portrait was unveiled, she shook her head in amazement.
She talked of having a “sister girl” connection with Sherald.
The Obamas selected the artists from a group of names submitted by the National Portrait Galley. The former first lady said that she was “blown away by the boldness of her color and the neatness of her subject matter.”
Spielberg and Capshaw were among the major donors who funded the commission, and other contributions came from John Legend and Chrissy Teigen. The total cost of the commissions and event was about $500,000, according to a spokeswoman for the Portrait Gallery.
After the former president’s portrait was unveiled, Obama took to the lecturn and said to the crowd, “How about that? Pretty sharp.” Wiley’s painting drew a wow-like gasp as it was unveiled. Obama quipped that as he sat for the portrait, he tried to “negotiate” that he have less gray hair and smaller ears, but Wiley had too much integrity to make the change.
He also joked about Wiley’s past portraits of ordinary people in situations that evoke famous figures, and that he didn’t want to be on a horse or holding a scepter. “I got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon. We got to bring this down just a notch.”
Obama said, more seriously, that Wiley, “in the tradition of a lot of great artists, actually cared to hear how I thought about it.”
Wiley gave an emotional speech in which he talked of growing up in South Central Los Angeles and visiting museums where he was one of the few African Americans strolling through galleries. He reflected on the history of the moment, as the first African American artist to paint the first African American president.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” he said.
The painting’s use of flowers and plants as a backdrop trace Obama’s life path, he said, with some of the flowers portrayed as if they are trying to get a spot in the foreground.
Both of the Obamas said that they had never sat for a portrait before. The iconic Obama ‘HOPE’ portrait by Shepard Fairey had been displayed at the gallery, but Obama noted that he did not sit for that painting. Additional portraits have yet to be unveiled of the Obamas that will hang in the White House.
Biden stated afterward that he thought that the paintings were “great,” and then praised not just Wiley’s artistic talent, but his oration. He quipped that he’d like to hire that artist as a speechwriter.
While Obama’s portrait will be featured in the gallery with other presidents, the portrait of the former first lady will be featured in the museum’s “recent acquisitions” corridor. The portrait gallery began collecting portraits of past presidents when it opened in 1968, and began commissioning works in 1994, with former President George H.W. Bush. It started commissioning portraits of former first ladies in 2006, with a portrait of Hillary Clinton.