Barack and Michelle Obama’s Official Portraits have been revealed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery on the 12th of February, and oh what a grand reveal it was. Their portraits are truly unique and the first of their kind. They speak about power and progress. They break the tradition of dark, somber presidential portraiture. They’re nothing like the ones painted before. And what’s even more interesting, Barack and Michelle’s portraits have been done by different artists in different styles.
These presidential portrait unveilings are usually quite a dull and routinely done ceremony, but not this one. The Obamas received quite a lot of attention and understandably so. Not only are the former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama the first black couple to get their presidential portraits done, but the artists they commissioned are also African-American.
The portraits themselves also differ greatly from any other paintings of American presidents done before.
Barack Obama’s portrait was done by Kehinde Wiley, a New York-based artists, known for his portraits and highly naturalistic paintings of African-Americans. Mr. Wiley depicted Barack Obama sitting in a chair, but not in the usual presidential office setting, but in what looks like a garden. In fact, it almost looks like Barack is suspended in mid-air, in the midst of beautiful and vibrant greenery. The colors in this painting are so striking, and so far from the usual solemn dark colors usually used for presidential portraits. There are also some flowers in the background, and they’re there not only to bring even more color to the painting, they have meaning and actually tell the story of Obama’s life.
African blue lilies represent Barck’s father’s home country of Kenya, a link to his family and heritage. Chrysanthemums are Chicago’s official flower, and that’s the city where he met Michelle and started his family and political career. Pikake, or Arabian jasmine, is a flower that represents Hawaii, where the former President spent most of his youth.
Michelle Obama chose Amy Sherald to paint her portrait. Amy is a Baltimore based artist and her art started out quite autobiographical but soon took on social context. Amy Sherald is not quite as well known and Kehinde Wiley, but she’s on her way. She became the first woman to ever win the Outwin Boochever Portrait competition in 2016 and she was recently awarded the High Museum of Art’s David Driskell Prize.
Amy Sherald painted the former First Lady in her usual style, with silvery skin, on a pastel background. The only thing that was unusual was Michelle’s dress. Amy usually paints her subjects in their day to day clothes, but Michelle was painted wearing a massive white dress, with simple geometric patterns on it. While Wiley’s portrait of Barack is rather loud, colorful and exuberant, Sherald’s portrait is calm, sparse, with a pastel blue background that doesn’t allow much distraction and makes you focus on the subject.
Both of these beautiful artworks are still getting a lot of media attention and comments from people all over the media, and rightfully so. They’re definitely a step away from the traditional old portraits and we’re hoping they will blaze a new trail when it comes to presidential portraits.