Take a popular former president, add a hot contemporary artist and a historic commission, and you get one of the glitziest events hosted by the Smithsonian that doesn’t involve the opening of an entire museum.
Former president Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, attracted hundreds of friends and colleagues and the media Monday — including Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Shonda Rhimes and Joe Biden — for the unveiling of portraits commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery for its permanent collection.
The bold choice of contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley — known for his colorful and subversive style — and up-and-comer Amy Sherald helped fuel interest in the event. They are the first African American artists to receive the president and first lady commissions, respectively, and they bring a contemporary excitement to the traditional portrait, said National Portrait Gallery Director Kim Sajet.
“Kehinde and Amy are taking the best of old portraiture traditions and adding a fresh layer by absorbing the influences of fashion, music, pop culture and painterly inventiveness,” Sajet said. “Together, they are transmitting the energy of urban America into the contemplative spaces of high culture, and I for one am thrilled.”
Wiley’s portrait of the president shows a steely-eyed Obama leaning forward in a chair that seems to float on a background of lush green foliage. The painting will hang in the “America’s Presidents” exhibit, one of the 50-year-old museum’s most popular attractions.
“How about that? Pretty sharp,” said the former president after he and Wiley unveiled the life-size portrait to a swell of “wows” from the crowd.
Obama said he was drawn to Wiley’s work because the artist challenges conventional views of power and privilege. “He would take extraordinary care and precision and vision in recognizing the beauty, grace and dignity of people who are so often invisible in our lives.”
Wiley, 40, thanked the former president for understanding his purpose.
“Big museums like this are dedicated to what we as a society hold most dear,” he said. “Growing up as a kid in South Central Los Angeles, there weren’t too many people who looked like me on those walls.”
His art attempts to correct, “to find places where people who look like me do feel accepted, do have the ability to express their state of grace,” he said. “The ability to be the first African American painter to paint the first African American president of the United States. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Michelle Obama selected Baltimore artist Sherald, 44, saying she was “blown away by the boldness of her colors.” She and Sherald immediately forged a “sister girl connection.” In thanking the artist and the crowd, the former first lady invoked the members of her family who created the foundation for her success.
“All these folks . . . were intelligent and highly capable men and women, but their dreams and aspirations were limited because of the color of their skin,” she said.
Michelle Obama said she was also thinking of young people of color “who in the years ahead will come to this place and see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of a great American institution.”
Sherald’s painting shows a pensive first lady wearing a dress by Michelle Smith’s Milly label before a blue background. The work will hang in an area reserved for new acquisitions through November.
Sherald described her approach as conceptual and she thanked Michelle Obama for “seeing my vision and being a part of my vision.”
The NPG portraits are the first two of four depicting the Obamas. Two more have been commissioned by the White House, and they will become part of its collection.
These are the first works by Wiley and Sherald to be acquired by the museum. A Wiley portrait of LL Cool J that is on view is a loan from the actor. Sherald won the museum’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition — becoming the first woman to do so — but her winning work wasn’t acquired.
Created by Congress in 1962, the National Portrait Gallery began commissioning portraits of outgoing presidents in 1994, with Ronald Sherr’s painting of George H.W. Bush. The museum added the first lady to the commission in 2006, when it arranged for Nelson Shanks to paint Bill Clinton and Ginny Stanford to depict Hillary Clinton. In 2008, during his last weeks in office, George W. Bush presided over the unveiling of his portrait by Robert A. Anderson, along with the portrait of first lady Laura Bush by Aleksander Titovets.
National Portrait Gallery curators present the presidents and first ladies with portfolios of work by artists they think would be appropriate, and the presidents and first ladies make the selection. The gallery commissions the artists, who are paid by the gallery with private donations. Michelle Obama noted that the couple interviewed the artists before making their selection, and she jokingly apologized for putting them through that stress. The cost of the Obama commissions, including the unveiling ceremony, was $500,000, officials said. Some 46 donors contributed to the effort. The lead donors were Kate Capshaw and her husband, Spielberg, Judith Kern, Kent Whealy, Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia.
While the commissions are relatively new, the gallery has collected presidential portraits since its beginning and has amassed 1,600 works, including photographs, prints and drawings. In addition to Obama’s portrait — which replaces a pair of photographs by Chuck Close — the gallery will add a recently acquired 1843 daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams, taken by Philip Haas, which is the earliest known photographic likeness of a president, according to the museum. And the museum’s prized “cracked-plate” photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken by Alexander Gardner, will be on view through Feb. 27.