On Monday morning, Barack and Michelle Obama popped back into the public eye to unveil their official portraits for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., a rite of passage for most former presidential couples.
This time, though, it's a bit different: Not only is Barack the first Black president to join the gallery's America’s Presidents exhibit, but his painting marks the very first time a Black artist has executed a presidential portrait.According to NBC News, Michelle's portrait, painted by Amy Sherald — a Baltimore-based African-American artist known for her unique portraits with social justice undertones — was the first to be revealed Monday morning.
In her signature style, Sherald painted Mrs. Obama's skin a shade of gray as a way of removing the assigned "color" of her subject. The final result is BREATHTAKING:"I am a little overwhelmed, to say the least," Michelle said in her speech after the unveiling.
She went on to explain just how impactful the portrait will be for young girls of color: "I'm also thinking of all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who ... will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution," Mrs. Obama added. "I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls."
Ugh. Tears.Barack, meanwhile, had assigned his portrait to Kehinde Wiley, an artist based in New York City who's known for his paintings depicting African-American men in regal, valiant poses, often positioned against bright, patterned backgrounds.
Wiley wound up painting Barack seated in a chair, arms loosely folded across his knees, leaning forward with a calm yet strong expression. The piece's background is a gorgeous, colorful floral display, which is pretty typical of a Wiley painting:
Obama deemed Wiley's depiction of him "pretty sharp," joking that he tried to negotiate smaller ears and less gray hair.
NPR reports that Wiley described the experience in awe, telling the crowd after his piece's unveiling: "The ability to be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming. It doesn't get any better than that."
Kate Lemay, a historian from the Smithsonian who curated the exhibition, described the impact of paintings like the Obamas' portraits in an interview with TIME Magazine.
"Photographs are candids, but the portrait is a more careful, thoughtful, reading of a president and his personality," she said.
You can check out the new paintings of the Obamas in person at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., beginning Tuesday, February 13. The former president's portrait will hang alongside those of his successors, from George Washington to George W. Bush, while the former FLOTUS' portrait will be on display through November in the "Recent Acquisitions" section.