Iconic Obama Portraits Unveiled in DC

This week the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. unveiled the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama. President Obama is one of the most important cultural and political icons in U.S. history as America's first and only black president. (National Gallery)

Slate Magazine

Why the Obamas’ New Paintings Are a Milestone in Black Portraiture

At first glance, the recently unveiled portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama appear as their occupancy of the White House did—a dazzling and elegant streak of light and color. President Obama is set against a riot of greenery that, according to the artist, charts “his path on Earth through those plants.” Michelle Obama, famous arms on display, is rendered in grayscale against a backdrop of blue as cool as Obama herself. In aesthetics, if not always in politics, the Obamas presented a bright and lovely contrast to the stately whiteness of the highest office of our country, and the portraits presented Monday by the National Portrait Gallery capture their joint vivacity.

The portraits are extraordinary for a myriad of reasons, not least of which is both artists the Obamas chose—Kehinde Wiley for the former president and Amy Sherald for the former first lady—are black.

To place the pieces in their artistic and political context, I spoke to Richard J. Powell, a professor of art and art history at Duke University and an expert in the history of black portraiture.

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Two iconic portraits for the iconic Obama presidency

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