Portrait paintings of former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama were revealed Monday at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Kehinde Wiley, 40, who identifies as gay and was raised in South Los Angeles, painted Barack Obama sitting in a chair, elbows in his knees, leaning forward with an intense expression. The background, typical of a Wiley painting, is a riotous pattern of lush foliage.
“That’s pretty sharp,” Obama said with a grin at the unveiling that was live streamed.
Amy Sherald, 44, of Baltimore, painted Michelle Obama.
The paintings, like the presidency they honor, are a historic first. Wiley and Sherald — both already famous for their portraits of black Americans — are the first black painters to receive a presidential portrait commission from the museum.
First gay, black artist
Wiley is also the first gay black artist to paint a presidential portrait for the National Portrait Gallery.
Wiley’s painting exemplifies his trademark style.
Born to a Nigerian father and and an African-American mother, Wiley grew up in South Los Angeles. His interest in portraiture began during frequent visits to the city’s Huntington Library art gallery. “I remember looking at the powdered wigs, the pearls, and the lap dogs and all of the trappings of power—wanting in some way to master painting on that level, but just being a kid and wondering what it must feel like to be able to take colored paste with a hairy stick and coax things into being,” Wiley said in a 2016 lecture at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts according to Quartzy.com.
Portraits with hip-hop fashion
Over the course of his career, Wiley, whom Barack Obama selected, has frequently portrayed young black men wearing the latest in hip-hop, street fashion. Wiley’s rich, highly saturated color palette and his use of decorative patterns complement his realistic and expressive likenesses.
The theatrical poses and props Wiley assigns to his subjects make references to iconic portraits of powerful figures by Western artists.
Wiley has painted Ice T channeling Napoleon, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five as a 17th century Dutch civic guard company.
‘Doesn’t get any better’
“The ability to be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming,” Wiley said at the event. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
The National Portrait Gallery said Wiley and Sherald’s artistic skills have opened a new chapter in official portraiture.
“Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald bring tremendous energy and empathy to their portraits, and we are excited to see how that translates to picturing the President and First Lady,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a statement last year. “In many respects, they are introducing a new chapter in official portraiture by combining the best of the past with pop culture, the hip-hop aesthetic of urban America and the personal stories of the artists themselves.”
National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery, a member of the Smithsonian Institution, has worked with outgoing presidents to commission a new portrait of each one since 1962.
The Obamas looked at the portfolios of more than 24 artists before deciding on Wiley and Sherald. Obama’s presidential portrait will hang in the hall of presidents, and the former first lady’s portrait will be placed in another gallery.
The public will be able to view both portraits starting Tuesday.