Kehinde Wiley’s work is instantly recognizable, with its vibrant patterns and evocative use of color. Known for “picturing young black people in stylized portraits that are deliberate throwbacks to earlier traditions of painting,” Wiley’s most recent portrait featured that of a particularly notable face: Barack Obama. Unveiled today alongside Michelle Obama’s portrait by Amy Sherald, the portraits of the first couple are not only stunning, they’re historic.
In a ceremony today in Washington D.C., The Smithsonian unveiled the official portraits in a rite of passage for former first couples, most of whom have their portraits hanging in the museum’s National Gallery.
“I tried to negotiate less gray hair, and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears, struck out on that as well,” Obama joked at the reception.
And while the Wiley did not take the President’s suggestions on his ears, he did make sure that the floral background was of particular significance to him. There are jasmine flowers to represent Hawaii, chrysanthemums which are the official flower of Chicago and African violets as a nod to Obama’s heritage.
“Let’s just start by saying, ‘Wow,’ again,” said Michelle Obama of her portrait. Baltimore based artist Amy Sherald painted the former First Lady in her signature “grayscale” color of a taupey-gray, “that doesn’t so much erase her subject’s race as declare its irrelevance,” the Baltimore Sun wrote. Michelle is wearing a custom designed gown by Milly, designed to echo the quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend.
President Obama’s portrait by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle Obama’s portrait by Amy Sherald will be on view to the public starting tomorrow, February 13th. Barack’s portrait will be permanently displayed in the “Hall of Presidents” exhibition, and Michelle’s portrait will be on view through early November 2018 in the “Recent Acquisitions” corridor, according to The Smithsonian.
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