The official presidential portraits of Barack Obama and the former first lady, Michelle Obama, were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC yesterday. President Obama’s portrait was painted by Kehinde Wiley, and Michelle Obama’s portrait was painted by Amy Sherald. Not only are the Obamas the first African-American presidential couple, but Wiley and Sherald are also the first African-American artists to paint presidential and first lady portraits.
Kehinde Wiley’s backdrop of green leaves and flowers provide some specific geographical references for Barack Obama: there are chrysanthemums (the official flower of Chicago), jasmine (symbolic of Hawaii where the president spent most of his childhood), and African blue lilies (referencing the president’s late Kenyan father). Amy Sherald’s painting also has a symbolic reference: the pattern on the dress (an actual design by Michelle Smith) resembles the strikingly modernist quilts created by the isolated African-American community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, beginning in the late nineteenth century.
All I can say is that both of these portraits are a drastic change in style compared to the previous four presidential portraits, as seen below!