At Large  January 25, 2020  Chandra Noyes

Obama Presidential Portraits are Coming to a City Near You

Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery

The immensely popular official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama are hitting the road next year, and may be coming to a city near you. The National Portrait Gallery has announced a five-city tour that will bring the famed paintings to new museums and new audiences.

“Since the unveiling of these two portraits of the Obamas, the Portrait Gallery has experienced a record number of visitors, not only to view these works in person, but to be part of the communal experience of a particular moment in time," Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a statement. "This tour is an opportunity for audiences in different parts of the country to witness how portraiture can engage people in the beauty of dialogue and shared experience.”

Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, © 2018 Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley, Barack Obama, 2018. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The National Portrait Gallery is grateful to the following lead donors for their support of the Obama portraits: Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg; Judith Kern and Kent Whealy; Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia.

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.

Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

Amy Sherald, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018. Oil on linen. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The National Portrait Gallery is grateful to the following lead donors for their support ofthe Obama portraits: Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg; Judith Kern and Kent Whealy; Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia.

Amy Sherald’s (b. 1973) portraiture has a similar aim, as she seeks to document the contemporary African-American experience. Sherald’s subjects are painted in greyscale, their skin and brightly colored clothing standing out against a background of solid color. Sherald, who is based in Baltimore, was just gaining major recognition as an artist when her portrait of Michelle Obama rocketed her to fame.

You can be one of the millions of people the Portrait Gallery expects to view the portraits at one of these venues:

Art Institute of Chicago: June 18, 2021–Aug. 15, 2021 
Brooklyn Museum: Aug. 27, 2021–Oct. 24, 2021 
Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Nov. 5, 2021–Jan. 2, 2022 
High Museum of Art, Atlanta: Jan. 14, 2022–March 13, 2022 
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: March 25, 2022–May 30, 2022

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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