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The Obamas’ just-unveiled presidential portraits are unlike any before them

Here’s why Michelle Obama’s skin is gray.

Mark Gulezian/NPG

Barack and Michelle Obama’s official portraits were revealed Monday morning at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, where they will hang along with portraits of every past US president.

The former first lady chose Amy Sherald, an artist from Baltimore known for painting life-size portraits of African Americans, to paint her portrait. Obama noted that she’s the first person in her family ever to have a portrait done, “let alone a painting that will be hanging in the national gallery.”

The painting will also be Sherald’s introduction to a general art audience.


“Amy, I want to thank you for capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm — and hotness — of the woman that I love,” former President Obama said at the unveiling, which was held Monday at 10 am.

Some weren’t convinced that the portrait looked like Michelle Obama — her skin, for example, is painted as gray.

But that’s in line with Sherald’s other work.

She often paints in grayscale — the Baltimore Sun reported that during a talk at Johns Hopkins University, Sherald said: “Gray makes the paintings work. But it’s also a way for me to subversively comment about race without feeling as though I’m excluding the viewer.”

Accuracy wasn’t an issue for the former president’s portrait; Obama noted that he wasn’t even able to “negotiate smaller ears” with New York City-based painter Kehinde Wiley.

Wiley’s naturalistic portraits often address the portrayal of young African-American men in contemporary culture. During the unveiling, Obama he said he admired how the artist’s work “challenge our conventional views of power and privilege.”

Barack And Michelle Obama Attend Portrait Unveiling At Nat'l Portrait Gallery Mark Wilson/Getty

But don’t think the public didn’t get to weigh in: The former president’s positioning in front of a hedge of flowers elicited plenty of commentary — summoning comparisons to everything from Beyoncé’s memorable Instagram reveal of her twins to a scene from The Simpsons.


It’s worth remembering the Obamas did choose the artists who rendered them, and were therefore familiar with the styles they’d be painting in.

The paintings are intentionally unlike the more realistic portraits that have come before (to less fanfare). Wiley and Sherald are also the first black painters to receive a presidential portrait commission from the museum, a factor that seemed especially important to Michelle Obama.

“I’m also thinking of all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who ... will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution,” she said. “I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls.”

The portraits will be available for public viewing starting on February 13 in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

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