‘A Game Changer.’ How a Painting of President Obama Broke the Rules

A Kehinde Wiley portrait is never hard to spot; bursts of jewel-tone colors, Rococo floral swirls, and, usually, a black or brown person as the subject. His depiction of Barack Obama is no exception. In the grand 7-by-5-ft. painting, unveiled in a ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery on Feb. 12, Obama is seated in an ornate brown chair, his arms folded neatly across his lap. Bright green vines illuminate the background; buds of lilies, chrysanthemums and jasmine are peppered throughout. He practically levitates amid the verdure. The image is a striking departure from the staid presentation of many of the other 43 Presidents in the “America’s Presidents” exhibit. And for that reason, it feels like an essential addition to American history.

The exhibit is curated in chronological order, but depending on how you enter, it opens with either George Washington or Obama. Like the historic Lansdowne painting of Washington, Obama’s portrait is rife with symbolism. But where Gilbert Stuart flirts with the splendors of the office of the President, Wiley alludes to the story of the man himself. “The way we think about a presidential portrait is one that is imbued with dignity from the outset. It is a vocabulary that has been fixed,” Wiley tells TIME. “The challenge here was to allow certain aspects of Barack Obama’s power and respectability to be a given so that we could move forward with a different type of narrative.”

Wiley stripped away the trappings of office in order to depict the former President’s life journey. African blue lilies are a nod to Obama’s father’s home country of Kenya. Chrysanthemums are the official flower of the city of Chicago, where Obama met his wife Michelle and started both his family and political career. Pikake, or Arabian jasmine, thrives in Hawaii, where the President spent much of his youth. These botanicals are a challenge to viewers to grapple with the improbability of Obama’s rise. The way the president appears to lean toward the viewer, his collar unbuttoned, exudes a level of openness not seen in some of the other portraits, says Taína Caragol, who curated the Wiley commission for the Portrait Gallery. It’s “indicative of the values of his presidency,” she says, “And the notion of a democracy that works from the bottom up instead of from the top down.”

For the first time in its 56-year history, the National Portrait Gallery commissioned two African-American artists, Wiley and the Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, who created Michelle Obama’s portrait, to paint the First Couple. The Gallery raised $500,000 in private funds from benefactors including Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, Judith Kern and Kent Whealy. A spokesperson for the Gallery would not discuss the artists’ fees or how the price compared with previous commissions.

Former US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama stand before their portraits and respective artists, Kehinde Wiley (L) and Amy Sherald (R), after an unveiling at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 12, 2018.

Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

The Obamas chose Wiley and Sherald after considering portfolios of some 20 artists. The Obamas interviewed a few at the White House, but ultimately decided on the two contemporary portraitists with whom they each felt a connection. Both artists’ work shows a commitment to making portraits of people who have traditionally been marginalized. Sherald, 44, typically paints subjects in ordinary clothes, holding everyday poses, but their features are…

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