President Obama's likeness, set against against a wall of bright green leaves and small flowers, was captured by Kehinde Wiley. The 41-year-old New York City-based artist is known for producing expansive, color-saturated tableaus of contemporary black men in the style of the Old Masters. Wiley's portrait of Obama included African blue lilies (representing Kenya, Obama's father's birthplace), jasmine (for Obama's birthplace, Hawaii) and chrysanthemums, the official flower of his adopted home, Chicago.
Amy Sherald, the artist tapped for Michelle Obama's portrait, is known for her depictions of black subjects. Sherald, 44 years old and based in Baltimore, depicted the former first lady in her signature style, which renders skin tones in shades of gray. Wiley and Sherald became the first black artists commissioned by the Smithsonian to produce presidential portraits.
At the unveiling, the Obamas spoke approvingly – well, mostly approvingly – of their portraits. "I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde's artistic integrity would not allow to do what I asked," Obama deadpanned. "I tried to negotiate smaller ears – struck out on that as well."
President Obama had fewer notes for Sherald, whom he thanked on Monday "for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and – hotness – of the woman I love."
Wiley's painting will hang alongside works from Elaine de Kooning (John F. Kennedy), Norman Rockwell (Richard Nixon) and Chuck Close (Bill Clinton) in the Smithsonian's permanent America's Presidents exhibition. Sherald's work will be on display through early November 2018.
Barack Obama praises Michelle Obama's portrait artist "for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love." https://t.co/31IsuBQpNp pic.twitter.com/7tkznasSaA— ABC News (@ABC) February 12, 2018