Politics

Dramatic portraits of the Obamas unveiled at Smithsonian

Barack and Michelle Obama helped unveil their portraits at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington on Monday.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Barack and Michelle Obama helped unveil their portraits at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington on Monday.

WASHINGTON — When Barack Obama speaks, people listen. At least they did when he was in the White House. But that kind of authority didn’t hold much sway when it came time for his presidential portrait.

At a ceremony Monday to unveil portraits of him and former first lady Michelle Obama, the former president said artist Kehinde Wiley cheerfully ignored almost all of his suggestions.

‘‘He listened very thoughtfully to what I had to say before doing exactly what he always intended to do,’’ he said. ‘‘I tried to negotiate less gray hair but Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow it. I tried to negotiate smaller ears and struck out on that as well.’’

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The final product depicts Obama sitting in a straight-backed chair, leaning forward, and looking serious while surrounded by greenery and flowers. Michelle Obama’s portrait, painted by Amy Sherald, shows her in a black-and-white dress, looking thoughtful with her hand on her chin.

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Both artists were personally chosen by the Obamas.

The portraits will now hang in the National Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian group of museums.

The gallery has a complete collection of presidential portraits. A different set of portraits of the former first couple will eventually hang in the White House.

The unveiling attracted hundreds of friends, colleagues, and media Monday, including former Vice President Joe Biden, director Steven Spielberg, actor Tom Hanks, and television producer Shonda Rhimes.

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The choice of contemporary artists fueled interest in the event. Wiley and Sherald were the first African-American artists to receive National Portrait Gallery commissions to paint the president and first lady. That brought a contemporary excitement to the traditional, gallery Director Kim Sajet said.

‘‘I am humbled, I am honored, I am proud,’’ Michelle Obama said. ‘‘Young people, particularly girls and girls of color, in future years they will come to this place and see someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this incredible institution.’’

Barack Obama spoke of his choice of Wiley, saying the two men shared multiple parallels in their upbringing; both had African fathers who were largely absent from their lives and American mothers who raised them.

The former president drew multiple laughs from the audience for his remarks, starting out by praising Sherald for capturing, ‘‘the grace and beauty and charm and hotness of the woman that I love.’’

Obama said he found the process of sitting for the portrait to be a frustrating experience.

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‘‘I don’t like posing. I get impatient and start looking at my watch,’’ he said, ‘‘but working with Kehinde was a great joy.’’

Michele Obama and artist Amy Sherald unveiled Mrs. Obama’s portrait at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Michele Obama and artist Amy Sherald unveiled Mrs. Obama’s portrait at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Former President Barack Obama (right) and Artist Kehinde Wiley unveiled Obama's official portrait at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.
Andrew Harnik/Associated Press
Former President Barack Obama (right) and Artist Kehinde Wiley unveiled Obama's official portrait at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.