Black sheets separate the world from historic paintings. A crowd of people waits anxiously for the first-ever public viewing of these paintings in National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. As both sheets fall the crowd erupts in applause. Two powerful portraits stand upon the stage: one, the former leader of the free world President Barack Obama and the other, former First Lady Michelle Obama.
These portraits were different - seemingly less stiff images of leadership than expected to hang in the National Portrait Gallery.
They left me feeling inspired and in awe, but I didn’t know why. However, the more I learned about these portraits, the more I began to understand their significance.
This would be the first time in US history that African-American presidential portraits would be added to the gallery. This monumental event is pushed even further by the fact that the artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, are the first African-American artists commissioned to take on the presidential portraits. Each artist broke the stereotypical presidential portrait norms and stretched our ideas of what portraits of leaders can be.
Barack Obama approached Kehinde Wiley to paint his portrait. Wiley chose to depict the former president casually sitting and looking at the viewer while a lush background of greenery and flowers are behind him. Symbols are everywhere in this painting. The relaxed pose mixed with his top button unbuttoned alludes to him being “a man of the people.” Also, the choice of flowers in the composition holds symbolic meaning to different elements of Obama’s life––chrysanthemums, the official city flower of Chicago, jasmine, for his birthplace of Hawaii, and African blue lilies representing his Kenyan heritage.
Michelle Obama remembers her initial meeting with Amy Sherald being “an instant connection, that kind of sister-girl connection that I had with this woman.” This bond is highlighted through her portrait of the former First Lady. Sherald portrays Mrs. Obama with the artist’s distinctive grey skin tones. She is elegantly posed and wearing a flowing graphic dress with a soft blue background behind her.
Everything points to Mrs. Obama’s public dignity throughout her 8 years in the White House and the public eye. In everything she did during her time as First Lady, she aspired to set an example and this portrait of her reinforces that. At the ceremony, Mrs. Obama described the significance of the portrait to younger viewers: “I’m also thinking about all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution and I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.”
Even after their departure from office, the Obamas continue to leave their mark on the American people and on United States history. These portraits are a reminder of their legacy.
Cameron Cizek is a junior studying computing.