Barack and Michelle Obama portraits unveiled at National Portrait Gallery

Jessica Estepa
Former U.S. President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama stand with their portraits during an unveiling ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018.
Jim Bourg | Reuters

The National Portrait Gallery has two new additions to its collection of presidential portraits: Former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama.

The portraits, unveiled Monday, are now part of the only complete collection of portraits of presidents outside the White House.

The portrait of Obama, by artist Kehinde Wiley, featured him sitting in a chair, arms folded, with a lush, green background.

Speaking just a few feet away, Obama joked that tried to negotiate less gray hair and smaller ears.

"I've never had a portrait done of myself," Obama said after the unveiling. "The 'Hope' poster done by Shep was cool, but I didn't sit for it." He was referring to the image designed by artist Shepard Fairey during his 2008 presidential campaign.

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Obama said he saw similarities between himself and Wiley, in that both were raised by American mothers and having absent African fathers.

"In some ways, our journey involved searching for them and figuring out what that meant," he said.

Wiley described the portrait and the unveiling as an "insane situation."

"When you look at this painting, you see a sure and amazing handsome man," he said. "But you see the botanicals which speak to his story...In a symbolic way, I'm charting his path on earth."

Michelle Obama's portrait, by artist Amy Sherald, featured the former first lady in a seated position, wearing a geometric pattern dress and against a light blue background.

She commended Sherald's work.

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"Let's just keep saying, 'Wow,'" she said after her portrait was unveiled.

Her desire to work with Sherald began from the beginning, when she saw someone who was "fly and poised."

"She turned to me and said, 'I'm really hoping you and I can work together,'" Michelle Obama said.

Sherald, likewise, called the opportunity a defining milestone in her life."

In attendance at the unveiling included former vice president Joe Biden, former attorney general Eric Holder, actor Tom Hanks, actress Rita Wilson and director Steven Spielberg. Spielberg and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, were among the donors who contributed to the commission for the paintings.