CHICAGO (CBS) — The Smithsonian has unveiled the portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama, to be displayed in the National Portrait Gallery in D.C.
Not only are the Obamas the first African-American president and first lady, but the artists who painted their portraits – Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald – are the first black painters to be commissioned by the gallery to create official presidential portraits.
Wiley, of Los Angeles, received the U.S. State Department Medal of Arts in 2015, and is known for his portraits of black men dressed in hip-hop clothing. He has created paintings of musicians Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, Ice T, and Michael Jackson, among others.
“How about that? That’s pretty sharp,” Mr. Obama said of his portrait, showing him dressed in a dark suit, seated in a chair surrounded by a field of greenery. The foliage around Obama includes the flowers chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, where he started his political career and met his wife; jasmine, representing his birthplace of Hawaii; and African blue lilies, representing his father’s birthplace of Kenya.
The former president said he didn’t know quite what to do when he started the process of choosing the artists to paint his and his wife’s portraits, but said he and Michelle felt an “immediate connection” with Wiley and Sherald.
He noted both he and Wiley had African fathers, but were raised by American mothers, and Obama praised Wiley’s “extraordinary care and precision” in his portraits.
Obama also joked about the “tortuous” process of posing for multiple photos that Wiley later would use to paint the portrait.
“There were a number of issues that we were trying to negotiate. I tried to negotiate less gray hair, and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well,” he said.
Wiley called being chosen to paint a presidential portrait “an insane situation.”
“Growing up as a kid in South Central Los Angeles, going to the museums in L.A., there weren’t too many people who happened to look like me,” he said. “I was humbled by this invitation, but I was also inspired by Barack Obama’s personal story; that sense in which both he and I both do have that echo of single parents, African fathers, that search for the father, that sense of twinning.”
Sherald, of Baltimore, is the 2016 winner of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, and is known for painting life-sized portraits of African-Americans, but with gray skin.
“I paint American people, and I tell American stories through the paintings I create,” Sherald said.
Michelle Obama said she was proud that having her portrait displayed in the Smithsonian would serve as an inspiration to girls of color “who in years ahead will come to this place, and they will look up, and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution.”
“I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to stand alongside my husband, and play a very small part in that history and that future.” she said.
Mrs. Obama’s portrait shows her seated in a dress by Milly, featuring a black and white abstract geometric pattern reminiscent of a quilt.
Mr. Obama thanked Sherald “for so spectacularly capturing the grace, and beauty, and intelligence, and charm, and hotness of the woman that I love.”
Barack Obama’s portrait will go up in the “America’s Presidents” gallery, the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House. Michelle Obama’s portrait will be displayed in the gallery’s “Recent Acquisitions” show.