Former US President Barack Obama joked about being a difficult, impatient model at the unveiling of his and First Lady Michele Obama’s official portraits this morning (12 February) at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, adding that he opted to forego Kehinde Wiley’s idea of posing him on a horse, dressed in regal attire. “I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon,” Obama said. “We've got to bring it down just a touch.”
Wiley, however, assured us that such a grandiose scene was never in the cards. The portrait instead shows the 44th president pensively seated in a chair surrounded—and sometimes obscured—by foliage that provides a botanical mapping of his life. Kim Sajet, the director National Portrait Gallery where the painting will join the historic collection of presidential portraits, surprised her staff by quickly recognising the flora in Obama’s painting. “I’m an avid gardener so I knew, ‘Oh, that’s an agapanthus,’” she said. African blue lilies reference Obama’s Kenyan father, jasmine represents Hawaii, where he grew up, and chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago where he started his political career as a community organiser, appear as well.
While discussing the portrait, President Obama said he found he shared some personal experiences with Wiley, including African fathers who were absent from their lives and American mothers who raised them with “extraordinary love and support”. Wiley also saw similarities: “He and I both have this kind of double narrative going on,” the artist said in an interview after the unveiling. “That was more fascinating than creating a stodgy old version of a presidential portrait.” And while speaking on stage, Wiley was moved to tears when talking about how his mother, who was in the audience, raised him in South Central Los Angeles. “We didn’t have much,” he said, “but she found a way to get paint.”
The Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait, was equally emotional while thanking her mother at the event. She also spoke movingly to Michelle about how she inspires others. “What you represent to this country is an ideal, a human being with integrity, intellect, confidence, and compassion,” Sherald said. She explained that the portrait, which depicts the former first lady in a billowing dress designed by Michelle Smith, draws on the colour scheme and grids of the painter Piet Mondrian and the geometric quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend in Alabama.
While some early reactions on social media have been critical of the grey-toned portrait’s likeness, President Obama thanked Sherald for “capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman that I love”. For her part, Michelle Obama said she felt an “instant connection” with Sherald, particularly when the artist came to the Oval Office. “Barack kind of faded into the woodwork,” Michelle Obama recalled. “She was fly and poised, and I just wanted to stare at her for a minute.”
She also said she was “a little overwhelmed, to say the least” about the portrait and was moved by the thought of “all the young people, particularly girls of colour, who will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution. I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls.”
Noting that the unveiling took place on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, David Skorton, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said that the 16th president credited a portrait by Mathew Brady with helping elect him. While Skorton added that there were likely some other factors at play, “presidential portraits have a particular power to capture the public imagination,” he said. In this case, it is doubly historic, as it is of the country's first African American president by the first African American artist commissioned to paint such a picture.
The lasting imprint of this particular presidential couple could also be seen in the flood of media coverage that followed the portraits’ unveiling. We had just finished our interview with Wiley when a handler whispered to him that he was trending on Twitter—ahead of Barack Obama.