Barack Obama’s official portrait, the first presidential portrait by a black artist commissioned for the National Portrait Gallery, was unveiled Monday.
Michelle Obama’s portrait, also painted by a Kehinde Wiley and another national first, was revealed as well.
For his portrait, which will hang in the hall of presidents in the National Portrait Gallery, Obama chose Kehinde Wiley, a prominent Yale-trained painter known for large, colorful portraits of black people in the regal style of classic European paintings. (Former presidents always choose their artists.)
“His initial impulse was to elevate me,” Obama joked. “I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon. We’ve got to bring it down just a touch.”
Instead, Obama was placed in front of a simpler backdrop of greenery, which Wiley explained as “charting his path on Earth through those plants,” according to Washington Post reporter Dan Zak. In the painting, there is “a fight going on” between Obama and the plants, which, Wiley said, represent Obama’s story. The flowers featured grow in Illinois, Hawaii, and Kenya, he said.
“How about that?” Obama said after the portrait was unveiled. “That’s pretty sharp.”
The former president added a couple self-deprecating jokes: “I mean, there were a number of issues that we were trying to negotiate,” he said. “I tried to negotiate less grey hair. And Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do that. I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well.”
According to the New York Times, “Wiley’s art plays on different ways of seeing, and questions the representation of nonwhites (or lack thereof) in Western art.” According to the Guardian, Wiley finds most of his models on the street, although he has also painted celebrities such as Michael Jackson.
“What I was always struck by whenever I saw his portraits was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege,” Obama said.
Michelle Obama chose a more obscure artist, Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, for her portrait. According to the New York Times, the National Portrait Gallery curators had not known Sherald when they started creating a list of artists for the Obamas. Sherald also paints portraits of black Americans, and according to the Times, her subjects “appear before solid fields of color reminiscent of Manet.”
When her portrait was revealed, Michelle Obama said she was “a little overwhelmed, to say the least.”
“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,” President Obama later said.
Sherald’s figures are often depicted on the grayscale, a method, she told the Baltimore Sun, that serves to “subversively comment about race without feeling as though I’m excluding the viewer.” According to the Times, the grey “signals their awareness of the obstacles to their full participation in American life.”
The Obamas often encouraged art by contemporary black artists during their time in the White House.
“I am in awe of Kahinde’s gifts, and what he and Amy have given to this country, and to the world,” Obama said. “And we are both very grateful to have been the subject of their attention.”