Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald are the first black artists to paint first black presidential portraits Black-on-black art: Former first couple humbled by their stunning new portraits

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As if Barack and Michelle Obama weren’t already immortal in so many ways, the world’s most famous couple is now forever embedded within the fabric of the nation’s capital with the unveiling of their official portraits. The special unveiling was held at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday morning.

Distinguished guests — Steven Spielberg, former vice president Joe Biden, Gayle King, former attorney general Eric Holder and Michelle Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson, to name a few — and media packed the gallery for the event. The Obamas are obviously the first black presidential couple to have their portraits painted. But the moment was also special because of the minds behind the brushes. Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley painted Michelle Obama’s and Barack Obama’s portraits, respectively. The duo became the first black artists to paint official presidential portraits. That moment wasn’t lost on anyone in attendance.

Former U.S. president Barack Obama looks at former first lady Michelle Obama’s newly unveiled portrait during a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery on Feb. 12 in Washington, D.C. The portraits were commissioned by the gallery for Kehinde Wiley to create President Obama’s portrait and Amy Sherald that of Michelle Obama.

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Both Obamas talked about the process of deciding on Sherald and Wiley. The final step involved face-to-face meetings with both artists at the Oval Office. After the decision, Michelle Obama and Sherald established what the first lady described as a “sista-girl” bond. Sherald echoed Michelle Obama’s sentiments, saying, “The experience of painting Michelle will stay with me forever. … The portrait is a … defining milestone in my life’s work.” Ever the comedian, Barack Obama joked that the only portrait he’s had done before this one was for his high school yearbook. He and Wiley bonded over his suggestions — less gray hair, smaller ears — that Wiley ultimately ignored.

“What Barack Obama wanted was [to be portrayed as] a man of the people, that sense of access,” Wiley told reporters after the ceremony. “The unbuttoned collar. The relaxed pose. In the end, what I think we got was a grand sense of celebration.”

Perhaps the morning’s most cruel yet comforting moment came when Barack Obama approached the podium. “We miss you guys,” he said. The crowd moaned. A collective sigh swept through the makeshift auditorium. Faint cries of “We miss you too” and “Please come back” fluttered.

For a faint moment, for many in attendance, having Barack and Michelle Obama back in the capital was a needed flashback. The only solace: Now, regardless of circumstance, everyone can always see them in Washington, D.C.

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