Iconic Obama Portraits Unveiled in DC

Former President Barack Obama right and artist Kehinde Wiley left unveil the Obamas’ official portraits at the Smithsonian's National Portrait in Washington

The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery Unveils Portrait of President Barack Obama

Established artists don't need commissions; Mrs. Obama's selection of Sherald, however, will have a major impact on her career right when she needs it. Her white dress, designed by Michelle Smith, is wide and geometric and abstract, and takes its inspiration from African fabrics. By borrowing stylistic elements from classical portrait painting and applying them to black and brown figures, Wiley encourages the viewer to contemplate the relationship between prestige and appearance.

"Sherald uses greyscale to paint skin tone in order to take away 'color, ' so her subjects can be seen for their personality and presence", Bennett wrote on Twitter.

The Obamas' portraits follow an established Washington tradition: the National Portrait Gallery has commissioned portraits of outgoing U.S. presidents and first ladies since 1962. From photoshopped images of Barack Obama peering through the background greenery of his portrait at an obscenely gesturing President Donald Trump to jokes related to what appears to be a sixth finger in the painting of the former president's hand - the denizens of social media got straight to work.

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This, of course, was not the first time Smith had the opportunity to dress Michelle Obama, in fact, Meredith Koop, the former first lady's stylist, often reached out to the Milly brand. As with many works of art, this was meant to be provocative ("I think at its best what art is doing is setting up a set of provocations", Wiley said in a 2015 interview).

"I'm also thinking about all the...girls and girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place...will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution".

"We miss you guys", Obama said, turning to some of his former aides in attendance.

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As far as the "kill whitey" claim, it is true that Wiley once created a painting that featured a black woman severing the head of a white woman, and did tell New York Magazine that it was a satirical riff on the phrase. But these portraits will remind future generations how much wish fulfillment was embodied in the Obamas, and how gracefully they bore that burden. A seatmate snapped, "They said 'We miss you,' what do you think they'd say?" In depicting the former president in a seated position imposed over colorful plant life, Wiley departed from years of tradition. Wiley uses "street casting" to find his models - walking city streets and asking ordinary people if they would pose for a portrait.

Now This News put together a 35-second video of all the presidential portraits from Washington to Obama, to make the distinction even more clear. The flowers behind him hold strong symbolism as well.

These official portraits are not destined for the White House; that's a different gig. We'd also love to know your thoughts and perspective on these paintings.

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