What People Love (And Hate) About Barack and Michelle Obama’s Official Portraits

Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama unveiled their portraits to a crowd of spectators in Washington at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Critics met the painting with both high praise and snarky comments. Let’s take a look at both of these portraits and really delve into what makes these paintings great and what makes them not-so great.

1. Who painted Barack’s portrait?

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and artist Kehinde Wiley unveil his portrait during a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and artist Kehinde Wiley unveil his portrait during a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The person who paints the portraits tells much about the vision in which the painting is made. For Barack, he chose Yale-trained painter Kehinde Wiley. Wiley is best known for his depictions of African-Americans in more regal settings with pops of color throughout his works. Never before has a black person painted a president’s official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery.

Next: What people didn’t like about Barack Obama’s portrait

2. Is the portrait set in Chicago’s Wrigley Field?

Former U.S. President Barack Obama stands artist Kehinde Wiley next to his newly unveiled portrait during a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

The portraits were commissioned by the Gallery for Kehinde Wiley to create President Obama’s portrait. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Some people take issue with the distracting amount of ivy surrounding the former president. It looks as though the ivy has grown over him and he is just letting it take over. Some say it’s a nod to Barack’s history in Chicago.

In part, they are right because Wiley notes that the flowers in the ivy represent Barack’s journey. The chrysanthemum is the official flower of Chicago and the jasmine is the flower of Hawaii. He even threw some African blue lilies in to represent his heritage.

Next: Barack did have some requests for the portrait.

3. Obama wanted his portrait toned down

Artist Kehinde Wiley, and Amy Sherald attend their official portrait unveiling of former U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama

Artist Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald attend their official portrait unveiling of former U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Barack Obama is a humble man in some regards. If you are familiar with Wiley’s style, then you could imagine the issues that Barack may have in how he is represented. “I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon. We’ve got to bring it down just a touch.” said the former president while giving a speech following the unveiling.

Next: See who Michelle chose to paint her portrait. 

4. Who painted Michelle’s portrait?

Michelle Obama unveils her portrait by Amy Sherald at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

Michelle Obama unveils her portrait by Amy Sherald at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Michelle chose artist Amy Sherald for her portrait. Amy Sherald is best known for her stylings of social justice undertones. She also has a unique style of painting her subjects in shades of gray to take away the power of an assigned color to her subjects.

Next: This is where a lot of people think the portrait missed the mark.

5. Is that really Michelle?

Former US First Lady Michelle Obama unveils her portrait at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

Former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama unveils her portrait at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The painting itself has many unique aspects to it. The one that has everyone talking is that the portrait doesn’t really look like Michelle. We aren’t talking about the skin tone or light balance, but the actual face of Michelle looks like someone else. That is a stark difference from her husband’s portrait showing a very high level of detail.

Next: These subtle details are important.

6. Michelle’s more important features were accurate

Former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama looks at her newly unveiled portrait during a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, on February 12, 2018 in Washington, DC.

Amy Sherald’s style is more about shape and color than it is about realism. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

More important are the subtle features of the painting. The hand resting against the chin in a contemplative position denotes intelligence and wisdom. Michelle having exposed arms shows her strength. The power of those subtle features is important. They show the strength, beauty, and intelligence of the former first lady.

Next: Here’s what the Obama’s thought of the paintings.

7. The Obamas loved the painting

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama stand beside their portraits after their unveiling at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Michelle says she is excited that “girls and girls of color … will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution. … And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.”

Barack appreciated how Sherald was able to “capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love,” he said heralding her work. Barack only wishes that Wiley would have made his ears smaller or removed some of the grey hair.

Follow The Cheat Sheet on Facebook!