Painting History

March 2, 2018
POWER POSE Kehinde Wiley (left) and former president Barack Obama shake hands at the unveiling of Obama’s official portrait.
MARK WILSON—GETTY IMAGES

Before leaving office in January 2017, President Barack Obama chose artist Kehinde Wiley to paint his official portrait. First Lady Michelle Obama chose Amy Sherald to paint hers. These are the first African-American artists picked to paint official presidential portraits. On February 12, the works were shown at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C.

“Being the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president: It doesn’t get any better than that,” Wiley said at the event.

In Wiley’s portrait, Obama is surrounded by vines and flowers. Chrysanthemums are the official flower of the City of Chicago. They stand for Obama’s Chicago roots. African blue lilies represent Kenya. That is where his father was from. And the jasmine is for Hawaii. That is where Obama was born.

A SPECIAL MOMENT Michelle Obama (left) and Amy Sherald smile as Sherald’s painting of the former First Lady is presented.

SAUL LOEB—GETTY IMAGES

In Sherald’s painting, Mrs. Obama wears a white dress with geometric shapes. She sits confidently.

“Young people, particularly girls and girls of color—in future years, they will come to this place and see someone who looks like them,” Mrs. Obama said after she and Sherald presented the painting.

The National Portrait Gallery has a full collection of presidential portraits. At the ceremony, President Obama praised Wiley and Sherald. “[Michelle and I] are both very grateful to have been the subject of their attention for this brief moment.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, the original version of this story misidentified the chrysanthemum as the Illinois state flower.