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With their unique portraits, the Obamas leave their mark

WASHINGTON — There is a theme to presidential portraits. They’re mostly old, formal — white. That changed Monday with the unveiling of portraits of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Like the Obama presidency, the nontraditional paintings represent a break from the past.

“I’m also thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls and girls of color. Who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall,” Mrs. Obama said at the ceremony.

Artist Sherald and former first lady Michelle Obama participate in unveiling of Mrs. Obama's portrait at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington
Artist Amy Sherald (R) and former first lady Michelle Obama participate in the unveiling of Mrs. Obama’s portrait at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018.

Jim Bourg / REUTERS

Artist Amy Sherald depicts a fashion-forward first lady, one who is calm and composed.

“Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing, with grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness, of the woman that I love,” Mr. Obama said.

Dorothy Moss is a curator at the National Portrait Gallery.

“They very much want to ensure that future generations can relate to these portraits,” she said.

Former U.S. President Obama attends Obamas' portrait unveiling at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington
Former U.S. President Barack Obama stands between painted portraits of himself and that of former first lady Michelle Obama during an unveiling ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018.

Jim Bourg / REUTERS

For Mr. Obama, Kehinde Wiley portrayed an accessible, focused president with references to his life in the background. Africa blue lilies are a reference to Mr. Obama’s father’s native Kenya. Jasmine represents Hawaii, and chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago.

“I tried to negotiate less gray hair,” Mr. Obama joked at Monday’s unveiling.

Wiley is internationally acclaimed for his large-scale paintings of African Americans in poses evoking famous historical figures. Mr. Obama didn’t want that.

“I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon,” he said.

The two unique paintings of two groundbreaking Americans will be displayed beginning Tuesday.

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