A hushed murmur of conversations filled the Atrium at the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. on Monday, as a crowd of political and showbiz heavyweights awaited the much-anticipated unveiling of the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama.
The portraits by Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald and Brooklyn-based artist Kehinde Wiley stood side by side, draped in fabric, waiting to be revealed by the former president and first lady, who personally did the honors with the artists by their sides.
In front of such entertainment luminaries as Steven Spielberg, C.C.H. Pounder, Gail King and Michelle Norris and political figures Joe Biden and Eric Holder, the Obamas were introduced by Smithsonian Institution Secretary David Skorton, who pointed out that the unveiling was also happening on the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, who once attributed his victory in the presidential election to a photographic portrait by Matthew Brady.
“Today that photograph is on display here at the National Portrait Gallery,” Skorton said. “Lincoln probably gave Brady too much credit, but his comment reflected something that was true back them and remains true more than a century and a half later. Presidential portraits have a particular power to capture the public imagination, to move people to think about America’s leaders, and indeed, American society itself in new and unexpected ways. This is why the Portrait Gallery has collected presidential portraits for 50 years, and has widely expanded that collection to include the nation’s first ladies. We’re excited to continue both those traditions today.”
The first portrait to be unveiled was that of Michelle Obama, who along with Sherald, revealed the greyscale image of her seated with her hand on her chin and a long gown wrapping her legs. Using a palette of gray and blue tones punctuated with white and colors at the base of the sweeping skirt, Sherald gave a nod to the designer, Michelle Smith. But she also noted that the pattern at the base paid tribute to the African-American quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.
In keeping with the artist’s style of using grays for skin tones of African Americans, her portraits are stylized archetypes, often conveying determined and defiant expressions, as Michelle Obama’s gaze related a resilient nature.
In her usual gracious manner, Michelle Obama admitted to being “a little overwhelmed.”
“I have so many thoughts and feelings rolling around inside me now,” she said. “I am humbled, I am honored and I am proud. But most of all I am so incredibly grateful to all the people who came before me in this journey. The folks who built the foundation upon which I stand. I don’t think there is anyone in my family who has ever had their portrait done, let alone any portrait that would be hanging in the National Gallery. But all those folks who let me be here today are with us physically and in spirit.”
She referenced her grandparents, Rebecca and Purnell Shields, and LaVaughn and Fraser Robinson Jr.. She also paid tribute to her late father, Fraser C. Robinson III, and her mother, Marion Robinson, who sat in the front row in support of her daughter and son-in-law.
“They were all intelligent, highly capable men and women,” the first lady said of her ancestors. “They had the kind of work ethic that usually destines people for greatness. But their generations were limited because of the color of their skin.
“But I am also thinking about all the young people,” she continued. “Particularly girls, and girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place, and they will look up and see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution. I know the impact it will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls. I think about those future generations and generations past, and I say, ‘Wow.’ What an incredible journey we are on together in this country. We have come so far and, yes, as we see today, we have a lot more work to do. But we have every reason to be hopeful and proud.”
The former president also seemed humbled, saying — in typical self-deprecating fashion — that he lacked the “hotness” of his wife. Stating that he misses the public, in his casual and humorous way, Obama also recognized Marion Robinson as the “rock and foundation of our family.”
“Like Michelle, I have never had my portrait done,” he quipped, adding that his high school yearbook photo “was no great shakes.”
“[Michelle and I] had an immediate connection with the two artists sitting here today,” he said. “Kehinde and I bonded, maybe not in the same way as the whole ‘sister girl’ thing. He and I had different sartorial decisions, but we did find that we did have several things in common. We both had American mothers who raised us with extraordinary love and support. And we both had African fathers who had been absent in our lives. And in some ways, our journeys involved searching for them and figuring out what that meant.
“I ended up writing about that journey and channeling it into the work that I do — because I cannot paint,” he said, injecting a laugh into every line.
“I was always struck by, whenever I saw his portraits, the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege,” Obama said. “The way that he would take extraordinary care, and precision and vision in recognizing the beauty and the grace and the dignity of people who are so often invisible in our lives, and put them on a grand stage, on a grand scale, and force us to look and see them in ways that so often they were not.”
He gave credit to those foundational family members but also “people who helped to build this country, and people who helped to build this capital. People, who to this day, make sure this place is clean at night, and who serve you food, and take out the garbage, and do all the other stuff that makes this country work, so often out of sight and out of mind. Kehinde lifted them up and gave them a platform, and said they belong at the center of American life.”
“That was something that moved me deeply,” Obama said before taking a jab at the current administration. “Because in my small way, that’s part of what I believe politics should be about. Not simply celebrating the high and the mighty, expecting that the country unfolds from the top down, but it comes from the bottom up.”
Barack Obama’s portrait was an extension of Wiley’s iconic style, where he places the figure against a highly detailed, decorative background. In the case of the president’s portrait, a plethora of green foliage fights against the figure, encasing his feet. Yet the figure captures the countenance of the former president, seated with his arms folded on his knees, gazing out with a look of steadfastness and authority. It is the spitting image of the man who overcame the odds to become America’s first African-American president.
Moving in its symbolism of being the first two African-American artists to paint the portraits of the first African-American president and first lady, both Sherald and Wiley were overcome by emotion. Wiley’s voice cracked when he realized — after a nudge from Michelle Obama — that he was remiss in thanking his mother, Freddie Mae Wiley, who raised him as a single parent in South Central Los Angeles.
“Working with Kehinde was easy,” Obama said. “Kehinde, relative to Amy, was working at a disadvantage because his subject was less becoming. Not as fly. Working with Kehinde was a great joy. In the tradition of a lot of great artists, [he] actually cared to hear what I thought about it, before doing exactly what he intended to do. There were a number of issues we were trying to negotiate. I tried to negotiate less grey hair and his artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well.”
While Wiley’s usual practice is to elevate his subjects in noble settings, Obama added that he was glad he wasn’t “placing me on thrones with scepters, mounting me on horses, I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon.”
The ceremony came to a quick conclusion after two photo ops, and the audience dispersed back out into the rain. But, as C.C.H. Pounder added, “For these artists, this is a game changer. It will be huge for their careers.”
The portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama go on public display Feb. 13 in the Presidential Gallery and the New Acquisitions Gallery, respectively. The National Portrait Gallery is located at 7th and F streets in northwest D.C. Go to www.npg.si.edu for more information.