The official portraits of former U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were unveiled on Monday, Feb. 12, at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The portraits, which broke from the usual tradition of depicting the president and first lady either in the White House or in front of a dark, muted background, have received a mixed reaction—albeit a big reaction—from the public.
Artist Kehinde Wiley—the first African-American to paint the official portrait of a U.S. president—depicted President Obama sitting on a wooden chair in front of a bright, colorful wall of leaves and flowers. Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald painted the former first lady wearing a large dress, using a mostly grayscale color scheme against a plain, light blue background.
Staff writer Vinson Cunningham of the New Yorker wrote positively about the details of President Obama’s portrait:
“Obama’s truest political gift, perhaps, was the ability to let a thousand flowers of expectation, born of history, bloom. The flora in the portrait represent the stations of Obama’s scattered personal and ancestral past—blue lilies for Kenya; jasmine for Hawaii; chrysanthemums for Chicago—and their momentary intrusions might hint at the ways in which the man was somewhat shrouded by the dazzling story that delivered him into his nation’s arms. He was hyper-visible and yet always partly hidden.”
However, Wiley’s painting of the president is not without its oddities. Obama’s hands are unusually large, and his left hand almost seems to have an extra ring finger concealing his pinky. Additionally, the leafy background contains several identical repeating patterns.
Although the portrait’s unveiling was likely the first time most Americans had heard of Wiley, one of his most controversial older paintings received renewed attention as a result. The painting, a re-imagining of a renaissance era work titled “Judith and Holofernes,” shows a black woman holding a sword and the decapitated head of a white woman.
“It’s sort of a play on the ‘kill whitey’ thing,” Wiley said of the painting in 2012. At the portrait unveiling on Monday, former President Obama praised Wiley for the way in which his portraits “[challenge] our conventional views of power and privilege.”
Despite negative reviews of her work from many critics on social media, the former first lady praised Sherald, who beat out 2,500 other artists in a competition for the chance to paint her.
Mrs. Obama said, “I’m also thinking about all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up, and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall."