After walking hand in hand across the stage at the National Portrait Gallery, Michelle Obama and Amy Sherald pulled down a black curtain to reveal the Baltimore artist’s portrait of the former first lady.
Painted in grayscale against a light blue background, Obama is seated, leaning forward in a long, flowing white dress that has abstract patterns in black and white and red, yellow and pink, with her chin rested on the top of her right hand.
“It’s a pretty painting,” former president Barack Obama said soon after it was unveiled.
“Let me just take a minute,” Michelle Obama said before delivering remarks. “It’s amazing. Wow.”
Michelle Obama likened the immense pressure faced by Sherald and Kehinde Wiley, the artist tapped to paint Barack Obama’s official portrait, to “cooking Thanksgiving for strangers,” in that everyone has ideas about how it’s supposed to look. Both Sherald and Wiley are the first African-American artists commissioned to paint official portraits of a president and first lady for the National Portrait Gallery.
But she was clearly impressed with the results and saw the importance of what this portrait represents for young people of color.
“They will look up and see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution,” said Obama. “And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls.”
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Obama said she formed a “sister-girl” relationship with Sherald, and was immediately impressed with her work before she came in to interview for the chance to paint either the president or first lady.
“I was blown away by the boldness of her colors and the uniqueness of her subject matter,” said Obama.
Even though Sherald was up for both jobs, Obama recalled, she turned to the first lady and said, “Mrs. Obama, I really hope you and I can work together.”
In her own remarks, Sherald said that painting the first lady’s portrait was a continuation of her work telling American people and American stories. But Obama’s presence was more transcendent, she noted.
“You exist in our minds and our hearts in the way that you do because we can see ourselves in you,” said Sherald. “The act of Michelle Obama being her authentic self became a profound statement that engaged all of us, because what you represent to this country is an ideal, a human being with integrity, intellect, confidence and compassion.”
“And the paintings I create,” she continued, “aspire to express these attributes, a message of humanity.”
In addition to grace, beauty, intelligence and charm, Barack Obama said in his remarks that Sherald’s painting captured another thing about his wife: her “hotness.”
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