Typically, an official presidential portrait unveiling at National Portrait Gallery might be a ho-hum affair, even with the traditional pomp and circumstance. Not so for former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on Monday.
The paintings — Mr. Obama’s by Kehinde Wiley and Mrs. Obama’s by Amy Sherald — elicited strong reactions for their striking use of colors and the backgrounds in which the Obamas were set.
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They are not in an office, sitting at a desk or standing in front of a row of books. The background for Mr. Obama’s painting is not a dark, solid color, but rather a lush bed of bright green leaves, with his chair almost suspended in midair. Mrs. Obama is painted against a bright-blue background, and she is wearing a vibrant dress.
It was a “strikingly different” approach by the two artists, according to the Times’s co-chief art critic Holland Cotter. Mr. Wiley told our art reporter Robin Pogrebin that he and Mr. Obama “decided very quickly that we were just going to strike out a path of our own.” The artists themselves, both African-American, have a history of tackling race issues — surely adding to the context with each the paintings were completed.