Following the end of each president’s term, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery partners with the White House to commission an official portrait of the president and the first lady. One set of official portraits is created for the White House and one for the National Portrait Gallery, a practice that began with former President George H.W. Bush in 1994.
For the Obamas, Portrait Gallery have tapped two black artists, New York-based Kehinde Wiley will paint Barack, and Baltimore artist Amy Sherald will paint Michelle. The Obamas were part of the selection process, and saw the work of about 20 artists submitted by the Portrait Gallery, with the decision finalized before they left the White House in January.
Wiley is best known for his portraits of street-cast black men and women in paintings that often make stylistic reference to Old Masters’ paintings.
Painting Barack is a wish fulfilled for Wiley, who told Time Out New York in 2008, “I’d love, love, love to do his official presidential portrait. I’m actively campaigning,” According to Rolling Stone, he mentioned the same in a 2012 interview with the BBC. “I think it would be really interesting to paint Obama,” said Wiley. “I’ve done several studies in the past, I’ve sort of worked out different strategies about how that would be, but it’s a very curious possibility. We’ll see where that goes.”
Up-and-coming artist Sherald is also known for her portraits of black Americans, but takes a more minimalist, less literal approach. Sherald was the first female recipient of the National Portrait Gallery’s portrait prize in 2016, and has a portrait titled “Grand Dame Queenie” in the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
This is the first time since the practice began in 1994 that the Smithsonian has commissioned black artists to paint the portraits.
Check out the artists with their work below.
With Barbara O’Brien Director of Kemper Museum tonight after my talk. It was great to be here with her. She unknowingly gave me my first big break when she was a juror for New American Paintings publication in 2008 and I was Jurors Pick. #kempermuseum #outwinboocheverportraitcompetition #portraituretoday #representationmatters