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The Unusual Obama Portraits

Obama Presidential Portraits Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama alongside their portraits (NPR)

Two new portraits are now on display at Smithsonian's Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The official portraits of Michelle Obama and Barack Obama were unveiled earlier this month, and the paintings are historic for a number of reasons.

Style

When you think of Presidential portraits, do you think of formal backgrounds, with offices and books and flags? Lots of people do, making the backgrounds of these portraits a bit of a surprise. President Obama is depicted sitting in a fairly formal wood chair, wearing a suit, but it's what's behind him that is unusual--a solid wall of green leaves, and lots of them, along with bright blooming flowers. The flowers are meaningful choices the artist made. Jasmine for Hawaii, where Mr. Obama was born, African blue lilies for his father's home country of Kenya, and chrysanthemums for Chicago, where the Obama family lives.

The background of Michelle Obama's portrait is plain blue. That plain color brings all the focus to Mrs. Obama's thoughtful expression and to her beautiful dress. The dress, says the painter, was created by dress designer Milly. Its patchwork theme is meant to remind a viewer of quilts, which the artist did on purpose to remind people that quilts are an important part of black culture.

Artists

Mr. Obama's portrait was painted by Kehinde Wiley, who is a 41-year-old painter from New York. Mrs. Obama's portrait was painted by Amy Sherald, a 44-year-old painter from Baltimore. The Obamas each chose the artist who painted them. The historic detail about both these painters is that they are both African-American. It's the very first time that African-American artists have been commissioned by the Portrait Gallery to paint presidential portraits.

Other Portraits

If you want to see more portraits, come see what we have at Oopsy Daisy. Speaking of unusual portraits, check out these by Kristina Bass Bailey. They're unusual because the subject is depicted from the back instead of the front. Can you think of other ways to create unusual portraits?

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