The Obamas Choose, Official Portraits

The Obamas Choose Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald to Paint Their Official Portraits for the Smithsonian

They will be the first black artists to officially paint a presidential couple.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama dance together at their second inaugural ball on January 21, 2013. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have been commissioned to paint former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama’s official portraits for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

Wiley and Sherald are the first black artists commissioned to paint a presidential couple, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Kehinde Wiley's Willem van Heythuysen (2005). Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Katherine Wetzel © VMFA.

“Both [painters] have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, in a statement.

Wiley, 40, is known for his Baroque-style portraits that depict young black men as European royalty. His lushly colored paintings, heavily influenced by art history, often juxtapose symbols of hip hop, such as hoodies and baseball caps, with aristocratic poses and backdrops. In Obama, Wiley will finally have a subject who has actually held the power with which he typically imbues his subjects.

Left: Kehinde Wiley, photo by Kwaku Alston, © Kehinde Wiley Studio. Right: Amy Sherald, © 2017 Amy Sherald.

Left: Kehinde Wiley, photo by Kwaku Alston, © Kehinde Wiley Studio. Right: Amy Sherald, © 2017 Amy Sherald.

Sherald, 44, specializes in portraits of black women. Although she, too, appreciates bright colors, her cheerful backgrounds and subject’s fashionable clothing contrast with the surreal figures, their skin painted in shades of gray.

The artist is currently featured in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s “Fictions,” a group show featuring 19 emerging artists of African descent. Sherald’s work can also be seen at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Amy Sherald's Welfare Queen (2012). © Amy Sherald 2017.

Amy Sherald’s Welfare Queen (2012). © Amy Sherald 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago.

In addition, Sherald won the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2016 for her painting Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance). The prize came with a $25,000 award, as well as a commission from the museum.

Wiley had a 2015 solo show at the Brooklyn Museum, and received the US State Department Medal of Arts in 2015. According to the art net Price Database, his record at auction is $143,000, achieved at Sotheby’s New York in 2014.

Amy Sherald's Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) (2013). Image Frances and Burton Reifler © Amy Sherald. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Amy Sherald’s Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) (2013). Image Frances and Burton Reifler © Amy Sherald. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago.

The Smithsonian is home to the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House. The recently renovated “America’s Presidents” exhibition reopened this month.

Currently, Obama is represented by two large-format Woodburytypes photographs taken by Chuck Close in 2012—one serious, one smiling.

Chuck Close, portrait of Barack Obama (2013). Courtesy of Two Palms and Chuck Close/National Portrait Gallery.

Chuck Close’s portrait of Barack Obama (2013). Courtesy of Two Palms and Chuck Close/National Portrait Gallery.

The National Portrait Gallery made a significant expansion to its presidential collection with the announcement earlier this week that it had acquired the earliest known photograph of a US President.

The daguerreotype, from 1843, features John Quincy Adams, the nation’s sixth President. It will go on view next year in “America’s Presidents.”

John Quincy Adams photograph, 1843, by Philip Haas. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

John Quincy Adams photograph, 1843, by Philip Haas. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

The museum purchased the historic photo at Sotheby’s New York on October 5, with a winning bid of $360,500. As for the Obamas’ portraits, the Smithsonian will pay for the works through private donations.

 

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