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Obama Means Family: A Presidential Portrait

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Obama Means Family: A Presidential Portrait

Courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery.
The new portraits of the Obamas are on display at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery. The new portraits of the Obamas are on display at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

WLX N. 102

Courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery. The new portraits of the Obamas are on display at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

WLX N. 102

WLX N. 102

Courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery. The new portraits of the Obamas are on display at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Dana Lee, Social Media Editor

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On February 12, 2018, official presidential portraits for Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled during a ceremony in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. The new paintings will be displayed for visitors to view in the world famous exhibit “America’s Presidents,” which is known to be the only place outside of the White House that houses a complete collection of portraits from George Washington to Barack Obama’s presidency. The unveiling of an official portrait is generally considered to be a special rite of passage for most former presidents, but the Obamas’ portraits in particular were highly anticipated largely due to the artists they selected to paint them.
The Obamas, who are the very first African American presidential couple to be displayed in the gallery, notably decided to choose two African American artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, to paint their likenesses. This is significant because it makes Wiley and Sherald the very first African American artists that were commissioned to paint an official presidential portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. After considering over twenty different artists, the Obamas ultimately chose Wiley and Sherald because they felt a connection to both artists who are known for painting African Americans in compelling ways.
Kehinde Wiley, the painter behind Barack Obama’s portrait, is a high profile artist from Los Angeles who earned a master’s degree in painting from Yale University. He is well known for his distinct style of painting young African American men in the regal, formal style of European royal portraits. When describing Wiley’s work, CNN states that “The juxtaposition of contemporary urban culture with centuries-old postures and wallpaper-like backgrounds make for bold paintings.” Wiley often uses bursts of jewel-tone colors, as well as flowers, to make his paintings pop. His painting of Barack Obama is no exception. In a detailed description of the presidential portrait, TIME Magazine colorfully states “Obama is seated in an ornate brown chair, his arms folded neatly across his lap. Bright green vines illuminate the background; buds of lilies, chrysanthemums and jasmine are peppered throughout.” His bright and floral design is an unusual concept and makes this portrait strikingly stand out among the other presidential portraits. According to TIME Magazine, Obama’s portrait “is a striking departure from the staid presentation of many of the other 43 Presidents in the ‘America’s Presidents’ exhibit.”
Wiley is also famous for his use of symbolism in his paintings. For example, the African blue lilies in the backdrop of Obama’s portrait represent Kenya, the home country of Obama’s father, and the Pikake, also known as Arabian jasmine flowers, represent Obama’s birthplace in Hawaii. The chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, are a reference to the city where Barack Obama first met his wife Michelle and began his political career. In order to create the portrait, Wiley reportedly took thousands of photographs of Obama, which he combined to create an incredibly detailed likeness of the former president.
During the speech at the unveiling ceremony, Obama claimed that he has always been struck by the way that Wiley’s portraits confront notions of power and privilege, stating that “Wiley takes extraordinary care and precision and vision in recognizing the beauty and the grace and the dignity of people who are so often invisible in our lives and put them on a grand stage, on a grand scale.”
Michelle Obama had Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald paint her portrait. Much like Wiley, Sherald’s portraits have a unique style that emphasize themes of social justice. She usually paints the skin tones of her subjects in various shades of gray in order to eliminate the component of race. According to a description by CNN, Sherald’s painting of Michelle Obama shows her in a “flowing, patterned dress with a halter neckline; her expression is thoughtful, her chin resting on her hand.”
In her speech at the unveiling ceremony, the former first lady addressed the impact that Sherald’s portrait of her will have on young girls of color. “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.”

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Obama Means Family: A Presidential Portrait