On Monday morning, the National Portrait Gallery held a ceremony for the unveiling of the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama that will join every other president in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.
The couple each chose their own artists to create the portraits. Barack commissioned Kehinde Wiley, a New York based artist, who’s website describes his work as engaging “the signs and visual rhetoric of the heroic, powerful, majestic and the sublime in his representation of urban, black and brown men found throughout the world.”
Wiley has had multiple solo exhibitions at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago as well as a piece as part of the collection at the Oak Park Library.
Michelle selected Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald to paint her portrait. She’s previously had a solo exhibition at the moniquemeloche gallery and has a solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis beginning in May of this year.
The Chicago Sun-Times noted that the background of Barack’s portrait is filled with jasmine to “evoke” his homeland of Hawaii as well as chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago.
The National Gallery has only started commissioning paintings beginning with George H. W. Bush in 1994 (and Hillary Clinton was the first First Lady to commission an artwork in 2006). It is also the only place outside of the White House that has portraits of every president.
Barack delivered a speech that dove into the process of getting a portrait done (as neither he nor Michelle had ever done it before) and delivered it with humor and humility. Of course he gave a shout out to “my man Joe Biden” who was in the audience, as well as his mother-in-law.
“Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman that I love,” Barack said.
As for this thoughts on his own portrait? “Kehindi, relative to Amy was working at a disadvantage, because his subject was less becoming. Not as fly,” he said to audience laughter. And the self-deprecation didn’t end there.
“There were a number of issues that we were trying to negotiate. I tried to negotiate less grey hair. And Kehindi’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well.”
Watch Barack’s full speech after the unveiling below: