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Former First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Barack Obama pose beside their official portraits
Image: picture-alliance/ABACA/D. Olivier

National Portrait Gallery unveils Obama portraits

February 12, 2018

Former US President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama have unveiled their portraits at a ceremony in Washington. The Obamas hand-picked the two African-American artists who created the large paintings.


Portraits depicting former US President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, were unveiled at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington on Monday.

Barack Obama's portrait was painted by New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley, who is known for his large-scale old-master-style paintings of African-Americans. Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald was commissioned to paint Michelle Obama's portrait.

Sherald and Wiley are the first black artists to be commissioned by the Smithsonian to paint a president or first lady. Prior to the Obamas' portraits, only one other African-American artist had ever painted a presidential portrait.

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The official portrait of former President Barack Obama
Image: picture-alliance/ABACA/D. Olivier

Symbolic flowers in Obama portrait

In his life-size portrait, Obama is portrayed seated on a wooden chair, surrounded by lush greenery dotted with bursts of flowers.

The flowers symbolize important influences in the former president's life: jasmine for his home state of Hawaii, African blue lilies for his late father, and chrysanthemums for Chicago, the city where he kick-started his political career.

"I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde's artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked," Obama joked at the ceremony. "I tried to negotiate smaller ears — struck out on that as well."

He said it was a "joy" to work with Wiley and described the artist's work as taking ordinary people and lifting them up by painting them in grandiose settings.

"In my small way I believe that is what politics should be about," Obama said. "Not simply celebrating the high and the mighty."

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Former First Lady Michelle Obama's official portrait at the National Portrait Gallery
Michelle Obama was depicted in gray, black and white tones with pops of colorImage: picture-alliance/ABACA/D. Olivier

Michelle Obama hopes portrait will inspire girls

Michelle Obama's portrait depicts the former first lady in tones of white, black and gray on a blue background. The only touches of color are at the bottom, in the red, yellow and pink on her gown's hem.

The former first lady said she hopes the portrait will help inspire young girls of color in the years to come.

"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," she said. "I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls."

Barack Obama praised Sherald for capturing the "grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman that I love."

The National Portrait Gallery's tradition of commissioning presidential portraits is relatively new, beginning with former President George H.W. Bush. The other portraits in its collection were either purchased or given as gifts.

Artist Simmie Lee Knox became the first African-American ever to be commissioned to paint a presidential portrait, when he painted former President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's official White House portraits, which are separate from those that hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

rs/kms (AP, dpa, Reuters)

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