The portraits of former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama unveiled on Monday at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. marked a historic first. The two artists who painted them are the first black painters to receive presidential portrait commissions from the National Portrait Gallery.
Kehinde Wiley, who is known for using bright, vibrant colors and large-scale paintings of African Americans, painted Barack Obama sitting in a chair, his gaze intense and fixated straight out to the viewer. His earnestness is offset by a wildly colorful background of green leaves.
“The ability to be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming,” Wiley said on stage during the unveiling. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald painted Michelle Obama sitting in a floor-length gown, her head resting on the back of her hand. Her face is calm, her mouth relaxed and unsmiling, and her eyes look directly at you with quiet and strong resolve. Sherald was first-prize winner of the Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.
After the unveilings some Twitter users noted that Michelle Obama’s portrait didn’t look a lot like her. Others noticed the grayness of her skin. Sherald’s trademark is using gray skin tones as a way of challenging the concept of color as defining race.
Wiley’s painting will be permanently installed in the Portrait Gallery’s acclaimed “America’s Presidents” exhibition. Sherald’s painting will be on view in the museum’s “Recent Acquisitions” corridor through early November. Public hours are 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
Simmie Knox, whose paintings of Bill and Hillary Clinton hang in the White House, was the first African-American artist commissioned to create an official presidential portrait.