By Olivier Douliery/Pool/.
The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery have tapped contemporary artists to paint portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle. The Obamas had a hand in the selection process, and, unfortunately, they have not selected famous artist George W. Bush to do the honors. But fortunately, they chose Kehinde Wiley, a wildly popular artist based in New York, and the lesser known, but still exciting up-and-coming Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald.
Wiley, who will paint the president, is known for depicting African American men in the style of the Old Masters over baroque backgrounds. In another lifetime known popularly as 2012, Wiley spoke about Obama’s presidency with the BBC. “The reality of Barack Obama being the president of the United States—quite possibly the most powerful nation in the world—means that the image of power is completely new for an entire generation of not only black American kids, but every population group in this nation,” he said.
The artist also noted that he’s prepped for this moment. In 2008, he told Time Out New York, “I’d love, love, love to do his official presidential portrait. I’m actively campaigning.” And then again to the BBC in 2012: “I think it would be really interesting to paint Obama. I’ve done several studies in the past, I’ve sort of worked out different strategies about how that would be, but it’s a very curious possibility. We’ll see where that goes.” Now, five years later here we are.
Sherald, who will be painting Michelle, has a portrait in the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, called “Grand Dame Queenie” (2012). She paints in grey scale for the body of her subjects, mostly black men and women, with colorful backgrounds and clothing. She also won a National Portrait Gallery portrait prize last year.
Though the White House commissioned black Alabaman artist Simmie Knox to paint the Clintons in 2000, these are the first black artists hired by the Smithsonian for a portrait of a former president since they started commissioning portraits in 1994. (George H.W. Bush received the inaugural honor).
Though the museum has not released the specific unveiling date, the portraits will be revealed in early 2018. “The Portrait Gallery is absolutely delighted that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have agreed to create the official portraits of our former President and First Lady,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a press release. “Both have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century.”
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