When Barack Obama speaks, people listen. At least they did when he was in the White House. But that kind of authority didn’t hold much sway when it came time for his presidential portrait.
At a ceremony Monday to unveil portraits of him and former first lady Michelle Obama, the former president said artist Kehinde Wiley cheerfully ignored almost all of his suggestions.
“He listened very thoughtfully to what I had to say before doing exactly what he always intended to do,” he said. “I tried to negotiate less gray hair, but Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow it. I tried to negotiate smaller ears and struck out on that as well.”
The final product depicts Obama sitting in a straight-backed chair, leaning forward and looking serious while surrounded by greenery and flowers. Michelle Obama’s portrait, painted by Amy Sherald, shows her in a black and white dress looking thoughtful with her hand on her chin.
Both artists were personally chosen by the Obamas.
The portraits will now hang in the National Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian group of museums. The gallery has a complete collection of presidential portraits. A different set of portraits of the former first couple will eventually hang in the White House.
“I am humbled, I am honored, I am proud,” Michelle Obama said. “Young people, particularly girls and girls of color, in future years they will come to this place and see someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this incredible institution.”
Barack Obama spoke of his choice of Wiley, saying the two men shared multiple parallels in their upbringing; both had African fathers who were largely absent from their lives and American mothers who raised them.
The former president drew multiple laughs from the audience for his remarks, starting out by praising Sherald for capturing, “the grace and beauty and charm and hotness of the woman that I love.”
Obama said he found the process of sitting for the portrait to be a frustrating experience.
“I don’t like posing. I get impatient and start looking at my watch,” he said, “but working with Kehinde was a great joy.”
Wiley said the depiction of Obama surrounded by greenery and flowers was meant to “chart his path on earth” through the choice of flowers. The painting includes chrysanthemums, which are the official flower of Chicago; jasmine to evoke Hawaii, where Obama largely grew up; and African blue lilies to honor Obama’s Kenyan father.
“Being the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president, it doesn’t get any better than that,” he said.
The portraits drew wildly divergent reactions on Twitter and elsewhere, with the hashtag #obamaportraits trending throughout the day.
Obama opponents took the opportunity to take shots at the former president and digitally edit Make America Great Again hats onto the portrait. Others dug into Wiley’s previous body of work and found a pair of racially charged paintings that showed black women holding the severed heads of white women.
Among Obama supporters online, there was a bit of grumbling that Michelle Obama’s portrait didn’t resemble her enough, but the overall tone was of how much people missed having the Obamas in the White House.