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Barack and Michelle Obama's official portraits are not what you'd expect. That's why they're interesting

WASHINGTON — The National Portrait Gallery has unveiled the official portraits of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, both painted by African-American artists, and both striking additions to the museum’s “America’s Presidents” exhibition. The 44th president is seen sitting on a wooden armchair that seems to be floating amid a scrim of dense foliage and flowers in an image by Kehinde Wiley. The first lady, painted against a robin’s egg blue background, rests her chin on one hand and stares at the viewer with a curious mix of confidence and vulnerability in a canvas by Amy Sherald.

The artists, chosen by the Obamas, have combined traditional representation with elements that underscore the complexity of their subjects, and the historic fact of their political rise. And both painters have managed to create compelling likenesses without sacrificing key aspects of their signature styles.


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