The Smithsonian’s presidential portraits are feeling the selfie love.
The new paintings of former president Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, attracted big crowds to the National Portrait Gallery last week, where thousands of visitors lined up for hours to see the works and snap selfies in front of them.
The gallery commissioned contemporary powerhouse Kehinde Wiley and emerging star Amy Sherald to create the paintings of the former first couple. The portraits attracted international attention when they were unveiled Feb. 12, and the enthusiasm continued during the first week they were on view to the public.
More than 72,100 visitors — including 50,000 during the long Presidents’ Day weekend — entered the museum during the first week, officials said. Those numbers are three times greater than last year’s holiday weekend, which attracted 16,041 visitors.
“What I loved most about it is people are talking about portraiture,” said NPG Director Kim Sajet, who milled about the gallery Sunday afternoon. “There was a lot of intrigue about them, they had heard about them, and they had a lot of questions.”
The works are surprising, which is part of their appeal, according to Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott. Wiley and Sherald “have combined traditional representation with elements that underscore the complexity of their subjects, and the historic fact of their political rise. And both painters have managed to create compelling likenesses without sacrificing key aspects of their signature styles.”
Wiley’s portrait of the 44th president shows Obama leaning forward in a chair surrounded by vibrant green foliage that includes references to Chicago, Hawaii and Kenya. Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama depicts the first lady in a dramatic printed dress before a blue background.
Sajet said she fielded many questions about the unusual works, especially about Sherald’s use of gray skin tones, a reference to black-and-white photography.
“She sees this as part of the trajectory of African American portraiture, trying to take the race out of the person,” Sajet said. “There was lots of debate and that’s what has gotten me excited, that people want to talk about it.”
Elisabeth Kilday, visitor services manager for the NPG and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which share the historic building, described a festive atmosphere in the galleries and courtyard, which on Saturday hosted family programs tied to the holiday.
“They were people wanting to see it right away, folks who really wanted to be there and who were really excited to see them in person,” Kilday said. “There was definitely a spirit of excitement.”
The museum prepared for the increase in visitors by creating two traffic patterns: one for guests who wanted to view the paintings and those who wanted to take pictures in front of them. On Sunday, when more than 20,000 visitors came through the doors, the line for a photo with Wiley’s portrait stretched 90 minutes.
“People were enjoying the community, the history,” Sajet said, adding that she continually alerted those waiting in line that the paintings were not temporary. “I kept saying ‘You do know they’re not going anywhere?’ ”
The enthusiasm was greater than anything she’s experienced in her four-year tenure, Sajet said. For Obama’s second inaugural in 2013, the museum installed large Chuck Close tapestries of Obama, and those attracted about 6,000 visitors during the inauguration weekend.
While the Obama portraits may have been the chief attraction, visitors didn’t bolt after seeing them, Sajet said. She directed people to check out other gems of the “America’s Presidents” exhibit, including the newly acquired daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams by Philip Haas from 1843.
The National Portrait Gallery is part of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture at Eighth and F streets NW. It is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.