WHEN THE OFFICIAL PORTRAITS of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery on Feb. 12, 2018, they garnered praise and endless opinions and inspired “pilgrimages” to Washington, D.C., to view them. Now the portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have inspired a five-city national tour beginning summer 2021.

In the span of one week after the Obama portraits were unveiled, traffic to the Smithsonian museum tripled. A year later, in February 2019 the National Portrait Gallery reported a sustained uptick in traffic. A record-breaking 2.7 million people visited in 2018, a million more than 2017.

An extension of what Obama’s presidency represented, the fascination and interest in the portraits stems from the couple’s worldwide popularity, cultural symbolism, and example of American exceptionalism, idealism, and black power personified in historically white spaces—the White House and the museum.

Wiley and Sherald are the first African American artists commissioned by the museum to paint portraits of a president or first lady. Given the outsized interest in the historic portraits, the Smithsonian museum is bringing them to the people, providing access to the celebrated images in communities throughout the United States. This morning, the National Portrait Gallery announced the Obama portraits will travel to museums in Chicago, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Houston.

President Obama’s portrait is currently on view in the America’s Presidents gallery on the second floor. One level up, Michelle Obama’s is installed on the third floor in the 20th Century Americans exhibition. In mid-May 2021, the paintings will be removed from display in advance of the tour, which will begin in June 2021 in Chicago and conclude in May 2022 in Houston.

    EXHIBITION SCHEDULE

  • Art Institute of Chicago | June 18–Aug. 15, 2021
  • Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, N.Y. | Aug. 27–Oct. 24, 2021
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art | Nov. 5, 2021–Jan. 2, 2022
  • High Museum of Art, Atlanta | Jan. 14–March 13, 2022
  • The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston | March 25–May 30, 2022

“We view the country as our community,” National Portrait Gallery Director Kim Sajet said in a statement. “Since the unveiling of these two portraits of the Obamas, the Portrait Gallery has experienced a record number of visitors, not only to view these works in person, but to be part of the communal experience of a particular moment in time. This tour is an opportunity for audiences in different parts of the country to witness how portraiture can engage people in the beauty of dialogue and shared experience.”

“We view the country as our community.… This tour is an opportunity for audiences in different parts of the country to witness how portraiture can engage people in the beauty of dialogue and shared experience.”
— National Portrait Gallery Director Kim Sajet

PROVIDING ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY to engage with the portraits, a new book about the paintings will be published next month. “The Obama Portraits” documents the unveiling ceremony with photographs by Pete Souza, chief White House photographer during the Obama administration, and a transcript of the remarks. The volume also contains new scholarship about each of the paintings. Duke University art historian Richard J. Powell is among the contributors.

Lavishly illustrated, the 152-page book features 76 color images, including exclusive photographs of the Obamas sitting for their official portraits with the artists. A reversible dust jacket allows readers to choose whether Wiley’s portrait of the President or Sherald’s portrait of Mrs. Obama covers the book.

In an essay titled “The Obama Portraits, in Art History and Beyond,” Powell considers the paintings in the context of history, portraiture, and contemporary art.

“How these portraits differ from the prototypes is also quite apparent. In addition to being convincing portrayals of their subjects, both paintings claim the category and, by extension, the elevated stature of contemporary art. As realistic representations of African Americans, both works stand apart from an overwhelmingly white and Eurocentric consortium of traditional portraits and other ex officio depictions…” Powell writes.

“What these distinctions coalesce around—and, by way of emphasis, what shapes these paintings as contemporary works of art—are Wiley’s and Sherald’s reputations in the art world, not so much as portraitists but, rather, as cutting-edge artists who ingeniously employ the trappings of portraiture while essentially dismantling the genre’s more conventional outcomes in order to convey something novel, critical, and timely.” CT

 

BOOKSHELF
With contributions by National Portrait Gallery Director Kim Sajet and Richard J. Powell, among others, “The Obama Portraits” will be published Feb. 11, 2020. A children’s book, “Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment” documents the experience of the little girl who gazed up in awe at First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait and became a national sensation when the image went viral.

 

IMAGES: From left, KEHINDE WILEY, “Barack Obama,” 2018 (oil on canvas). | © 2018 Kehinde Wiley, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The National Portrait Gallery is grateful to the following lead donors for their support of the Obama portraits: Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg; Judith Kern and Kent Whealy; Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia; and AMY SHERALD, “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,” 2018 (oil on linen). | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The National Portrait Gallery is grateful to the following lead donors for their support of the Obama portraits: Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg; Judith Kern and Kent Whealy; Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia

 

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