Obamas' official portraits revealed at the Smithsonian

Dylan Stableford
Senior Editor

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled its commissioned portraits of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on Monday. Barack Obama image, painted by artist Kehinde Wiley, shows him seated in front of an ivy backdrop, while Michelle Obama was painted by Amy Sherald in a pale blue setting. Wiley and Sherald were the first black artists commissioned to paint a presidential couple for the Smithsonian.

“Kehinde was working at a disadvantage,” the 44th U.S. president joked at the ceremony. “His subject was less becoming. Not as fly.”

“I tried to negotiate less gray hair, but Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow it,” he added. “I tried to negotiate smaller ears —  struck out on that again as well.”

Official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled Monday. (Barack by Kehinde Wiley; Michelle by Amy Sherald; images courtesy the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery)

Obama said Wiley initially wanted to portray him with “scepters” and “chifforobes” — possibly even mount him on a horse.

“I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon,” he said. “We’ve got to bring it down just a touch.”

Michelle Obama had nothing but praise for Sherald’s process.

“I was blown away by the boldness of Amy’s colors,” she said. “In the first few seconds of our conversation, I knew she was the one for me.”

On Twitter, reactions to the portraits quickly poured in — with a mixture of admiration and mockery.

Obama, who has been critical of some of President Trump’s policies and comments, did not mention his successor in his speech — though he seemed to make a veiled reference to the current scandal engulfing the White House.

“We miss you guys,” Obama said, turning to some of his former aides in attendance. “We miss the way those who worked with us on this incredible journey carried yourselves.”

The Obama portraits unveiled Monday won’t be displayed in the White House — they will be on view at the National Portrait Gallery, home to the only other complete collection of presidential portraits.

Another portrait of President Obama will eventually be unveiled at the White House, though likely not for a few years. President George W. Bush had his official White House portrait unveiling in May 2012 — late in President Obama’s first term.

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