The Obamas' Unconventional Portraits Unveiled at National Portrait Gallery

Former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama unveiled their official portraits at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, where most former presidents, from George Washington to Barack Obama, have their portraits hanging in. The paintings, painted respectively by African-American artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, will be open to public viewing starting Tuesday.

After looking at the portfolios of more than two dozen artists, Mr.Obama decided on Kehinde Wiley for his portrait, and Mrs. Obamas picked Amy Sherald for hers. The choice has made Wiley and Sherald the first African-American artists to be commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery on official portraits for a presidential couple.

Kehinde Wiley, an artist from South Central Los Angeles, is famous for depicting African-Americans against a background of bold and sharp colours. He put Obama sitting against a backdrop of green foliage, where different flowers associated with Obama woven into the greenery, including chrysanthemums, Chicago's official flower, jasmine for Hawaii, and African blue lilies for Obama's Kenyan heritage.

Other works by Kehinde Wiley

Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald painted Michelle Obama wearing a flowing, black and white gown with patterned patches of striped colour against a robin’s egg blue background, showing her as a woman both confident and approachable.

Other works by Amy Sherald

The two paintings have received mixed reactions. It draws criticism about the portraits being unrepresentative and absurd. They are also deemed to be too bold and non-traditional compared to portraits of other past presidents. While some praise the originality of the portraits and consider these two norm-challenging portraits have made history.

Portraits of other former presidents

Portrait of J.F. Kennedy

Speaking of iconic presidential portraits, J.F. Kennedy's portrait of him posing with his eyes looking down is unique among other portraits. After JFK's death, Jackie Kennedy commissioned Aaron Shikler to paint the official portrait for her husband. She said, “I don’t want him to look the way everybody else makes him look, with the bags under his eyes and that penetrating gaze. I’m tired of that image.”