National Portrait Gallery unveils Obama portraits

Ashraf Khalil
Associated Press

Washington – The National Portrait Gallery is unveiling portraits of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama.


Former first lady Michelle Obama and former President Barack Obama pose next to their official portraits at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday, February 12, 2018 in Washington, D.C.

Barack Obama’s portrait was painted by Kehinde Wiley – an artist best known for his vibrant, large-scale paintings of African-Americans. For Michelle Obama’s portrait, the gallery commissioned Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, first-prize winner of the Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.

The paintings were being unveiled Monday at the gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian group of museums. The gallery has a complete collection of presidential portraits.

Here's what else you need to know about the portraits: 

How were Wiley and Sherald chosen to paint the Obamas? The Obamas selected the artists after examining almost two dozen portfolios.

Haven’t I heard Amy Sherald’s name before? Sherald first became known to the nation’s art critics in the fall of 2016 when her portfolio beat 2,500 other entries to win the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. However, Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama is likely to be her introduction to a general art audience.


Former President Barack Obama takes a look at former first lady Michelle Obama's official portrait at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday, February 12, 2018 in Washington, D.C.

What’s her story? Sherald’s career came perilously close to being derailed twice. In 2004, she stopped painting for three years while helping care for ill family members in her native Georgia. In 2012, at age 44, she collapsed on a pharmacy floor and subsequently had a heart transplant. It took her about a year to build up her strength enough to allow her to resume painting.

Are Sherald and Wiley the first two African-American artists to receive this prestigious honor? No, but there haven’t been many. Simmie Knox, who painted the official White House portrait of Bill and Hillary Clinton, was the first African-American artist to receive a presidential portrait commission.

What will the pundits be talking about? Sherald paints life-sized portraits of African-Americans, but she paints them all with gray skin. She has said it’s “A way for me to subversively comment about race without feeling as though I’m excluding the viewer.” If Michelle Obama’s portrait also has gray skin, art critics are likely to focus on that aspect of the painting.

What about Kehinde Wiley? He’s known for portraying African-American men wearing contemporary clothes and posing in the heroic stance of Old Masters artworks.


Former President Barack Obama with artist Kehinde Wileyhe unveils his official portrait at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday, February 12, 2018 in Washington, D.C.

How can I see the paintings for myself? The portraits should be in place starting Tuesday at the National Portrait Gallery at 8th St. NW and F St. NW in Washington. Wiley’s painting will be permanently installed in the Portrait Gallery’s “America’s Presidents” exhibition. Sherald’s painting will be on view in the museum’s “Recent Acquisitions” show through early November. Public hours are 11:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. daily.

What else should I look for? The Obama portraits are painted by different artists and will hang in separate galleries. But ideally, the paintings will work together. The inevitable stylistic differences will harmonize with rather than compete with one another – just as their real-life counterparts do.