The National Portrait Gallery has two new additions to its collection of presidential portraits: Former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama.
The portraits, unveiled Monday, are now part of the only complete collection of portraits of presidents outside the White House. They are the first presidential portraits created by black artists.
The portrait of Obama, by artist Kehinde Wiley, featured him sitting in a chair, arms folded, with a lush, green background. The greenery was meant to represent his past.
Speaking just a few feet away, Obama joked that he tried to negotiate less gray hair and smaller ears.
“I’ve never had a portrait done of myself,” Obama said after the unveiling. “The ‘Hope’ poster done by Shep was cool, but I didn’t sit for it.” He was referring to the image designed by artist Shepard Fairey during his 2008 presidential campaign.
Obama said he had an “immediate connection” with Wiley and spoke of his admiration for his work, describing it as art that challenges “our conventional views of power and privilege.”
Obama said he saw similarities between himself and Wiley, in that both were raised by American mothers and having absent African fathers.
“In some ways, our journeys involved searching for them and figuring out what that meant,” he said.
Wiley described the portrait and the unveiling as an “insane situation.”
“When you look at this painting, there’s sure an amazingly handsome man,” he said. “But there’s also botanicals that are going on there that nod to his personal story. … In a very symbolic way, what I’m doing is charting his path on earth.”
Michelle Obama’s portrait, by artist Amy Sherald, featured the former first lady in a seated position, wearing a geometric pattern dress and against a light blue background.
She commended Sherald’s work.
“Let’s just start by saying, ‘Wow,’ again,” she said after her portrait was unveiled.
Her desire to work with Sherald began from the beginning, when she saw someone who was “fly and poised.”
“She physically turned to me and she said, ‘I’m really hoping that you and I can work together,’ ” Michelle Obama said.
Sherald, likewise, called the opportunity a “defining milestone” in her life.
Attendees to the unveiling included former vice president Joe Biden, former attorney general Eric Holder, actor Tom Hanks, actress Rita Wilson and director Steven Spielberg. Spielberg and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, were among the donors who contributed to the commission for the paintings.