Barrack and Michelle Obama’s portraits revealed at National Portrait Gallery

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Artist Kehinde Wiley (L) and Barack Obama participate in the unveiling of Obama's portrait. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

The portraits of former United States President Barrack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama have been unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Monday.

The former first couple attended the unveiling of their portraits, which is a rite of passage for most former presidents. The Obamas’ portraits have been much anticipated, as they are the first presidential portraits created by African-American artists.

The portrait of the former president was made by artist Kehinde Wiley, who is a Yale University-trained painter. He is famous for his depiction of African-Americans posed in regal and formal styles but filled with pops of color.

In his portrait, President Obama is depicted sitting in a chair, with his arms folded. The background is filled with lush greenery with bright-colored flowers in various places.

“There’s a fight going on between him and the plants in the foreground that are trying to announce themselves,” Wiley said of the painting. “Who gets to be the star of the show? The story or the man who inhabits the story?”

The painting is also interpreted as a radical statement uprooting traditional notions of power, as the former president is depicted dressed down and sitting among flowers.

For her portrait, the former first lady selected artist Amy Sherald from Baltimore, whose paintings usually underscore themes of social justice. Her paintings have less realism and focus on shape and color.

In the portrait Michelle is depicted in a sitting position, wearing a flowing white dress with geometric patterns against a light blue background. Her skin is painted grey, a signature style by Sherald, who does it in order to take away the assigned color of her subjects.

The former first lady reflected on the impact that the portrait could have on girls of color. “They will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution,” she said. “And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.”

President Obama’s portrait will be displayed in the hall of presidents, the former first lady’s will be in another gallery.