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Obamas' portraits unveiled

Katherine Skiba, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled Monday at the National Portrait Gallery, showcasing works from the first African-Americans to create paintings for the gallery's collection of U.S. presidents and their wives.

The former president's portrait features flowers in the background: chrysanthemums referencing the official flower of Chicago, jasmine evoking his native Hawaii and African blue lilies in memory of his late father. The former first lady's shows her in a long, flowing, sleeveless black-and-white dress embellished with geometric shapes by designer Michelle Smith's label, Milly.

The Obamas were joined by family members, friends and current and former staffers. The former first couple selected the artists before leaving the White House in 2017, gallery officials said.

Kehinde Wiley, who is based in New York, was chosen for the former president's portrait. He is known for creating vibrant, large-scale paintings of young African-Americans, according to a biography provided by the gallery. He typically portrays people of color posing as famous figures in Western art, "challenging the visual rhetoric that is dominated by elite white men," the bio said.

Amy Sherald, of Baltimore, painted the former first lady's portrait. Sherald is noted for stylized, archetypal portrayals of African-Americans, and she herself is the "personification of resilience," according to a bio from the gallery. Sherald was diagnosed with congestive heart failure shortly after earning a master of fine arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004 and underwent a heart transplant eight years later, the bio said.

Monday's ceremony was invitation-only. The public may view the new portraits starting Tuesday.

The Obamas were joined by celebrity friends including Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, as well as Obama administration officials, including former Attorney General Eric Holder and Chicago attorney Tina Tchen, who was Michelle Obama's chief of staff. Other guests included former assistant White House chef Sam Kass and Denis McDonough, a former White House chief of staff.

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Two celebrity couples -- Spielberg and actress Kate Capshaw, and singer John Legend and model Chrissy Teigen -- were among more than 45 donors who contributed to commissioning the Obamas' portraits, according to the gallery.

The National Portrait Gallery has the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House. The museum opened in 1968 in a Greek Revival building that during the 19th century housed the U.S. Patent Office.

Other portraits of the Obamas, bound for the White House, have yet to be unveiled.

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