The unveiling of the portrait of President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley in 2018 was a historic moment. With the Obamas‘ selection of Wiley and Amy Sherald (who painted First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait) to produce their official likenesses, these painters became the first black artist to receive the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s commission for portraits of a President or First Lady.
In painting this portrait, and then consultation with the sitter, Wiley at once spoke to and reenvisioned the centuries long tradition of representing political leaders. His depiction of President Obama presents a striking contrast to the formality of earlier presidential portraits and images of first ladies. Before photography, these older portraits often served as the primary image of a president. Today, our president and first lady‘s are constantly in the spotlight, and they’re like this is a ubiquitous.
Barack Obama’s choice of Kehinde Wiley, an innovative figurative painter, reflects his deep engagement with contemporary art and culture. Wiley is firmly rooted in the tradition of portraiture and in the depiction of black individuals, making them visible in museums and, by extension, in American cultural representation — an approach that aligns with Obamas’ priorities. The final portrait grew out of close bond developed between the artist and the sitter, highlighting a successful intersection of artistic vision and the construction of presidential legacy.
Photographed in the Brooklyn Museum