TWO AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTISTS are painting official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The artists were selected by the Obamas. New York-based Kehinde Wiley is painting the president and Baltimore artist Amy Sherald will depict the first lady. The Portrait Gallery commissioned the portraits which are expected to be unveiled in early 2018 and will enter the museum’s permanent collection.

“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. 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,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a statement.

“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. 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.” — Kim Sajet, Director, National Portrait Gallery

From left, Amy Sherald | © the artist; Kehinde Wiley | J. Countess, Getty Images


THE PRACTICES OF BOTH ARTISTS are rooted in portraiture. Each has a distinct, recognizable style.

Wiley built his practice making portraits of young black men (and now, on occasion, black women) he spots on city streets. His portraits recast the subjects in scenes from old European master paintings with elaborately patterned background. Over the years, he has expanded his vision, pursuing projects in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Middle East for a portrait series called The World Stage. In 2015, during the Obama Administration, Wiley was honored by the U.S. Department of State with a Medal of Arts award for his commitment to the Art in Embassies program.

After earning his MFA at Yale University, Wiley was a 2002 artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. From there, his practice blossomed. “A New Republic,” his 10-year retrospective, was organized by the Brooklyn Museum in 2015.

For a recent exhibition at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, Wiley presented portraits of his fellow contemporary artists, including Glenn Ligon. During the Obamas eight years in the White House they were enthusiastic supporters of the arts and selected a number of contemporary works for display in their private quarters, including a painting by Ligon.

Wiley already has a painting in the Portrait Gallery collection, a 2005 portrait of LL Cool J.


KEHINDE WILEY, “LL Cool J,” 2005 (oil on canvas). | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; on loan from LL Cool J © Kehinde Wiley


SHERALD EARNED HER MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art and Design. Blending realism and fantasy, her portraits explore race, representation and performance. She depicts black figures in grayscale. The approach contrasts and foregrounds the bright colors of her backdrops and the highly stylized clothing and accessories of her subjects.

Last year, recognition from the Portrait Gallery bolstered Sherald’s career. She won first prize in the museum’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. She was the first woman and first African American to take top honors in the competition which is held every three years and includes a $25,000 cash prize and a commission to create a portrait of a living person for the museum’s permanent collection.

In the period since, her work has been featured on the cover of the Smithsonian magazine (September 2016) and is currently on view in the visual art galleries of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Monique Meloche Gallery has presented her work in Chicago (2016) and New York (2017).

Her work was featured in the group exhibition “Face to Face: Los Angeles Collects Portraiture” at the California African American Museum, and is currently on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem (“Fictions”), and Kemper Museum in Kansas City, Mo. (“The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today”).

Sherald’s solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis opens May 2018 and, at the end of this month, she is speaking at the National Gallery of Art on (Oct. 29).

I reached out to Sherald via email, and asked how she planned to approach Mrs. Obama’s portrait. She said, she was sorry, but “no interviews until the unveiling.”


EXH_PC_337 R-p1adjji5lv1ks1abom2e1c5ceir
First Prize, 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition – AMY SHERALD, “Miss Everything (Unsupressed Deliverance),” 2013 (oil on canvas, 54″ × 43″). | Frances and Burton Reifler © Amy Sherald


WILEY AND SHERALD are the first African American artists commissioned for presidential portraits at the Natioanal Portrait Gallery. Simmie Knox, however, is the first and only African American artist to paint an official White House presidential portrait. His image of Bill Clinton was unveiled in 2004, in tandem with Hillary Clinton’s official White House portrait, which Knox was also commissioned to paint.

Private funds are being raised for the Obama portraits and related programming. When the commissions were announced, the Portrait Gallery explained the tradition of its presidential portraits: “At the end of each presidency, the museum partners with the White House to commission one official portrait of the President and one of his spouse. There are two sets of official portraits: one for the White House and one for the National Portrait Gallery. The museum began to commission Presidents’ portraits with George H.W. Bush. …The museum is the only place outside the White House where visitors can view a complete collection of presidential portraits.”

The Portrait Gallery’s collection already includes images of the Obamas. A pair of photographs of the former president captured by Chuck Close in 2013 are currently on view at the museum (see here and here). There is also a painting of the 44th president by Michael A. Glier. Mrs. Obama is represented, too. The museum owns an Andy Warhol-esque print titled, “Michelle O,” made by Mickalene Thomas in 2008. CT


TOP IMAGE: First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama, June 18, 2012. | Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, Courtesy Obama Foundation


“Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” documents the artist’s 10-year survey organized by the Brooklyn Museum. The catalog “The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2016: American Portraiture Today” accompanies the exhibition for which Amy Sherald won first prize and features her work on the cover.


Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an independent editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.