Barack and Michelle Obama’s official portraits were unveiled this week at the Smithsonian National Portrait Museum in Washington DC, where they will hang along with portraits of every past US president.
Former US President Obama described his portrait by Kehinde Wiley – “known for his Old Master-style depiction of African-Americans,” says the BBC – as “pretty sharp”
The former first lady chose Amy Sherald, an artist from Baltimore known for painting life-size portraits of black Americans, to paint her portrait. Obama noted that she’s the first person in her family ever to have a portrait done, “let alone a painting that will be hanging in the national gallery.”
“Amy, I want to thank you for capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm — and hotness — of the woman that I love,” he said at the unveiling.
The paintings are “intentionally unlike the more realistic portraits that have come before”, says The New York Times’s Holland Cotter. Wiley “depicts Obama not as a self-assured, standard-issue bureaucrat, but as an alert and troubled thinker”, he says, while Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama “overemphasizes an element of couturial spectacle, but also projects a rock-solid cool”.
Wiley and Sherald are the first black painters to receive a presidential portrait commission from the museum, “a factor that seemed especially important to Michelle Obama,” says Vox.
“I’m also thinking of all the young people,” the former first lady said, “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. I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls.”
On Twitter there was praise for the paintings, with many commenting on Kehinde’s unique depiction of the former president.
Can we talk about how stunningly powerful it is to see a black man in a garden the way Kehinde Wiley painted Barack Obama?!
It dismantles so much and creates new visions of masculinity that black men rarely have the public permission to explore. pic.twitter.com/pwycHtbbDX
— Brittany Packnett (@MsPackyetti) February 12, 2018
Some suggested that Michelle Obama’s portrait was unrealistic, while others came to the artist’s defence:
People snarking on the Michelle Obama portrait should really take 2 minutes to see it in the context of Amy Sherald's other portraits. pic.twitter.com/CbDYTFey4V
— Schooley (@Rschooley) February 12, 2018
And, as ever, there were those who thought The Simpsons got there first:
— Siraj A. Hashmi (@SirajAHashmi) February 12, 2018
The portraits will be on public display from today in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.