6 Things to Know About Barack and Michelle Obama’s Official Portraits

These aren't your basic presidential portraits

Just like the 44th President and First Lady themselves, the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama are unlike any that have come before them. Bursting with colour, personality and that inimitable Obama cool, the portraits that were revealed today to much fanfare and delight (somewhere, Donald Trump is seething) are a far cry from portraits of presidents past. No stiff poses, no sombre browns and greys, no dull backdrop of a staid library or study. Instead, these new commissions to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC are bold, vibrant and joyful. But would we expect anything less of these two?

Here, six things to know about the newly-unveiled and hyper-cool portraits.

1. Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald are the first African-American artists to paint the presidential portraits.
And of course, President Obama highlighted that fact in his Instagram post, saying, “Today, @KehindeWiley and @ASherald became the first black artists to create official presidential portraits for the Smithsonian. To call this experience humbling would be an understatement. Thanks to Kehinde and Amy, generations of Americans — and young people from all around the world — will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this country through a new lens. They’ll walk out of that museum with a better sense of the America we all love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Inclusive and optimistic. And I hope they’ll walk out more empowered to go and change their worlds.”

2. The Obamas personally chose the artists for their portraits.
The former First Couple selected the artists from a group of names submitted by the National Portrait Gallery. Speaking of Sherald, the former First Lady said that she was “blown away by the boldness of her colour and the neatness of her subject matter.” Of Wiley’s work, President Obama quipped, “I tried to negotiate less grey hair and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears – struck out on that as well.”

3. Both of the Obamas said that they had never sat for a portrait before.
“The Hope poster by Shep [Shepard Fairey] was cool, but I didn’t sit for it,” said President Obama. “Nobody in my family as far as I can tell has had a portrait done. I do have my high-school yearbook picture.” It’s a first for Michelle Obama too, as she outlined in her Instagram post: “Nobody in my family has ever had a portrait – there are no portraits of the Robinsons or the Shields from the South Side of Chicago. This is all a little bit overwhelming, especially when I think about all of the young people who will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this, including so many young girls and young girls of colour who don’t often see their images displayed in beautiful and iconic ways. I am so proud to help make that kind of history.”

4. Barack loves Michelle’s portrait (of course).
Immortalized wearing a geometric-print dress by New York-based label Milly, the First Lady’s portrait is both striking and elegant, and her husband is obviously a fan.

“Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love,” said Obama at the portrait reveal.

5. There’s a logic behind each of the flowers painted in the President’s portrait.
According to Variety, each of the flowers in the background of President Obama’s portrait represents something—“chrysanthemums, the official flower of the Obamas’ hometown of Chicago; jasmine, for Hawaii, where Obama spent his childhood; and African blue lilies to reference his late Kenyan father.”

6. The portraits are funded by some pretty famous people.
Steven Spielberg, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen are some of the donors who helped fund the Smithsonian commissions, reported the Chicago Tribune. Gallery officials estimate the cost of the commissions, including the unveiling ceremony, to be about USD 500,000, according to the Washington Post.