On February 12, 2018, President Barack Obama and Former First Lady Michelle Obama attended the unveiling of their official portraits at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The Obamas stood with the artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively, as the larger-than-life canvasses were revealed.
Wiley’s portrait shows a thoughtful Obama seated in a wooden chair, on a background of lush foliage, clad in his typical dark suit and white dress shirt, without a tie. Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama is in her trademarked style: her skin in greyscale, the First Lady is seated against a flat, pale blue background. Mrs. Obama wears a geometric-patterned dress, the splashes of color in the painting coming from the sparse shapes on her dress.
Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977) is known for his sumptuous portraits of contemporary African-Americans painted in traditional heroic poses. His realistically painted subjects in casual, contemporary clothing stand out against rich, patterned Rococo backgrounds. Wiley has painted celebrities before, including LL Cool J and Michael Jackson, but most often his portraits feature anonymous, average African-Americans, who stand-in for the white kings and conquerors that have traditionally been portrayed in this style. Through this reversal, Wiley seeks to honor and elevate his subjects in a way that has historically been denied to them. His recent monumental sculpture, Rumors of War, brought his message to Times Square, before moving to its permanent home at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where it stands in contrast to the city’s multiple Confederate monuments.