National Portrait Gallery unveils Obama portraits

National Portrait Gallery unveils Obama portraits (Mike Carter-Conneen/ABC7)

The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery unveiled its commissioned portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on Monday. Both portraits were painted by African-American artists who were personally selected by the Obamas.

The former First Lady was painted by Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald who two years ago won the museum's national portraiture competition. Her first prize included a commission to create a portrait of a living individual to be added to the museum's permanent collection.

She said she dreamed of doing a portrait of Lenny Kravitz, Colin Powell, Serena Williams or Spike Lee. At the time, the Obamas - perhaps - seemed too aspirational.

“This experience has humbled, honored and informed me in ways that will stay with me forever,” Sherald said, speaking at the unveiling event.

The President was painted by Los Angeles native Kehinde Wiley who is known for his work showcasing everyday African-Americans in extraordinary scenes and styles.

“[Wiley recognizes] the beauty and the grace and the dignity of people who are so often invisible in our lives and puts them on a grand stage,” Mr. Obama said.

“How about that? Pretty sharp,” he said, first reacting to his portrait’s unveiling.

Before Wiley and Sherald were selected and their work was commissioned by the museum, the artists were interviewed by both Obamas in the Oval Office at the end of Mr. Obama’s second term.

“I have to say I was nervous to all get out,” Wiley said.

He said his piece took more than a year to complete, finding the right pose and style, with Obama seated in front of a botanical backdrop that makes subtle references to his life story.

“All of those flowers come from different parts of the world, from Hawaii to Kenya to Chicago,” Wiley said. “What Barack Obama wanted was that he was a man of the people. That sense of access, the unbuttoned collar, the seated relaxed pose.”

Speaking at the event, Obama said he normally hates posing, saying he gets impatient. But he told the crowd that working with Wiley was "a great joy."

“I tried to negotiate less gray hair,” Obama said to laughs. “Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked.” Obama said he also requested smaller ears, getting more laughs.

GALLERY: National Portrait Gallery unveils Obama portraits

Mr. and Mrs. Obama said neither of them, nor anyone in their families, had ever been featured before in a portrait. Mrs. Obama acknowledged she was humbled by the portrait unveiling event, thinking of her grandparents and generations past as well as future generations, especially girls of color.

“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,” she said. “I am humbled. I am honored. I'm proud.”

The portraits have received mixed reviews on social media, especially the former First Lady’s painting. But during the program, Mrs. Obama seemed to defend the artists before anyone could criticize their work.

“To paint a portrait of Michelle and Barack Obama is like cooking Thanksgiving dinner for strangers. Everybody has an idea of what Thanksgiving dinner is supposed to taste like,” she said.

Many celebrities attended the event, including Shonda Rhimes, Steven Spielberg, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson.

It was also an Obama administration reunion, of sorts, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder, advisors Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, press secretaries Robert Gibbs, Jay Carney and Josh Earnest.

“To sit here and think about that journey and see those who took so much of that journey with us, [it was an] amazing day,” Axelrod said.

“You know it doesn't feel like a lot of time has passed,” Gibbs said.

The portraits go on public display Tuesday with President Obama’s painting permanently joining his contemporary colleagues in the museum’s America’s Presidents exhibit. Meanwhile, Mrs. Obama's painting will be on view in the Recent Acquisitions corridor through early November.

Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton said, “I'm looking forward tomorrow to seeing it up there. We're going to hang it tomorrow morning.”

The National Portrait Gallery has a complete collection of presidential portraits. A second and different set of portraits of the former first couple will eventually hang in the White House.

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