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Portraits are unveiled of the Obamas

By KATHERINE SKIBA

Chicago Tribune

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

In his portrait, the former president is without a tie and seated on an ornate wooden chair in front of a lush botanical backdrop featuring flowers: 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 is somber and bare-armed in her portrait, wearing a flowing, mostly black-and-white dress with geometric shapes and flashes of color.

“It’s pretty nice, isn’t it?” she said.

Hundreds were on hand for the hour-long ceremony, including some of the Obamas’ celebrity friends, former aides and the artists.

Artist Amy Sherald is from Baltimore and the “personification of resilience,” having undergone a heart transplant, according to a bio from the gallery. Kehinde Wiley of New York won the commission to paint the former president.

Wiley, like the former president, was raised by an American mother and an African father, largely absent. But they have differences, Barack Obama said, since “I cannot paint.” He joked that he tried to negotiate with Wiley to show him with fewer gray hairs and smaller ears, to no avail.

The former president said he was moved by Wiley’s earlier works of people who are often invisible, working as janitors or food servers.

“In my small way that’s part of what I believe politics should be about,” Obama said, “not simply celebrating the high and the mighty, expecting that the country is ruled from the top down, but rather that it comes from the bottom up.”

He, like his wife, paid tribute to his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson. He said that in addition to providing the “hotness genes” that his wife inherited, Robinson was an “extraordinary rock … for our family.”

In her remarks, Michelle Obama heralded her late grandparents, Purnell “Southside” Shields, his wife, Rebecca, and Fraser and LaVaughn Robinson. She said they were intelligent, talented and hard-working “but their dreams and aspirations were limited because of the color of their skin.”

The former first lady said she felt a “sister-girl” connection to Sherald, saying she found the painter “fly,” “poised” and “cool” when they met for an interview in the Oval Office. She said she was honored that girls of color in the years ahead would see an “image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution.”

“I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls,” she added.

The Obamas were joined by A-list friends including Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, the latter of whom helped lead fundraising for the portraits. Singer John Legend and his wife, model Chrissy Teigen, were among more than 45 donors, gallery officials said.

Obama administration officials who turned out included former Vice President Joe Biden; former Attorney General Eric Holder; Tina Tchen, former chief of staff to Michelle Obama; and Sam Kass, who cooked in the White House and had leadership roles in the Obamas’ policy campaign for healthy eating.

“We miss you guys,” the former president said from the stage.

The event fell on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and during the same week Barack Obama launched his improbable race for the White House in 2007 in Springfield, Ill. The public may view the new portraits starting Tuesday. Other portraits of the Obamas that are bound for the White House have yet to be unveiled.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

 

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