Portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama make their debut in Washington, D.C. And they’re not what you’d expect

Former President Barack Obama and Artist Kehinde Wiley unveil Obama's official portrait at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery on Monday in Washington.
(Andrew Harnik / AP)

Travelers heading to Washington, D.C., this spring will have something new to see: Portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery. The portraits will go on display Tuesday and mark the first time the museum has commissioned African American artists to paint a president and his wife.

The portraits were unveiled in a ceremony at the museum Monday with the Obamas attending, a news release said. Barack Obama’s portrait will be part of the permanent “America’s Presidents” exhibition on the second floor.

Kehinde Wiley created the official portrait of the president against a backdrop of lush flowers — and not just any flowers. They are “chrysanthemums (the official flower of Chicago), jasmine (symbolic of Hawaii where the president spent most of his childhood) and African blue lilies (alluding to the president’s late Kenyan father).”


Wiley, from South Los Angeles, has painted rappers LL Cool J and Ice-T, and other pop culture figures.

Baltimore-based painter Amy Sherald created the portrait of Michelle Obama. Sherald is known for her stylized portraits of African-Americans, and her works appear in museums across the country. Michelle Obama’s portrait will be on view in the museum’s “Recent Acquisitions” hall through early November.

Artist Kehinde Wiley, left, stands next to former President Barack Obama, whose portrait he painted. Amy Sherald, right, painted former First Lady Michelle Obama.
(Pete Souza / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution )

Info: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, (202) 633-8300


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