The internet is enthralled by the Obamas' official portraits


The process began near the end of the first African-American president's final term when he chose New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley, 41, and the first lady chose Baltimore-based painter Amy Sherald, 44, to paint their portraits.

The paintings were revealed Monday at the gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian group of museums.

The former first couple attended the unveiling of their portraits, which is a rite of passage for most former presidents. Other portraits were acquired as gifts, bought at auctions or through other means.

"Very quickly we arrived at the notion: As opposed to creating a type of echo of historical precedence, we should try to clear the table", Wiley says, and "start at ground level to create something that hasn't been seen before".

"I'm thinking of all the girls of colour who will come and see someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American Institution", said the former U.S. first lady. The use of gray is a political statement of sorts for Sherald, in which she discards the assigned "color" of African-American subjects.

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The official portraits of President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama were unveiled on February 12. Her works stand in direct opposition to prejudice and discrimination while questioning contemporary definitions of identity.

To place the pieces in their artistic and political context, I spoke to Richard J. Powell, a professor of art and art history at Duke University and an expert in the history of black portraiture.

Sherald thanked her subject and explained the way she transforms her portraits of American people from individual subjects into archetypes.

Michelle Obama's portrait done by Sherald, is a grayscale painting of the former First Lady perched behind a blue background, wearing a white floor-length gown with splashes of color. The artists themselves, both African-American, have a history of tackling race issues - surely adding to the context with each the paintings were completed. "Attorney General Holder! I hear you're running for president!" The artist has described the influence that black and white photography has had on her style of portraiture. "She turned to me and said, 'I really hope that you and I can work together.' " That's when "Barack kind of faded into the woodwork", she recounted, and she and Sherald quickly bonded with "that kind of sista-girl connection" and trust a successful portrait requires. But these portraits will remind future generations how much wish fulfillment was embodied in the Obamas, and how gracefully they bore that burden. "Established artists don't need commissions; Mrs. Obama's selection of Sherald, however, will have a major impact on her career right when she needs it". The pattern was also inspired Piet Mondrian's geometric paintings and the quilts created by the women of Gee's Bend in Alabama. "It's like something I sense with my spirit more than my mind".

Even before they were painted, the Obama portraits were revolutionary.