Speed Reads

presidential art

People are flipping out over Barack and Michelle Obama's official portraits

Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama unveiled their official portraits Monday, to great commotion. The paintings were the first presidential portraits to be made by African-American artists, Time says, and also represent a significant break in aesthetics from the more traditional portraits of previous presidents that hang in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

The former president was immortalized by artist Kehinde Wiley as seated among a sea of flora, which The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott notes includes flowers that grow in Illinois, Hawaii, and Kenya — the places where Obama grew up and made a name for himself. During the portrait's unveiling, Obama noted that Wiley's work often uses "elevated settings" and joked that he warned the painter not to go overboard: "I've got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon," Obama quipped. Either way, the portrait caused a stir, as some observers noted that it recalled a famous scene where Homer Simpson tries to clandestinely slip away, while others saw a resemblance to Beyonce Knowles' pregnancy announcement photo.

Artist Amy Sherald's depiction of the former first lady, meanwhile, is far more subdued by comparison. Obama is painted against a pale blue backdrop and her skin is a muted, almost gray tone — a technique that Sherald has employed in the past, CNN points out, to "take away the assigned 'color' of her subjects." While some claimed that Sherald's portrait did not resemble the former first lady, Obama herself defended her portrait, saying that everybody assumes they know what she looks like, just like "everybody has an idea of what Thanksgiving is supposed to taste like."

The Obamas' portraits will join the rest of the presidential visages at the National Portrait Gallery on Tuesday.