“I paint American people, and I tell American stories through my paintings,” said Amy Sherald ’04 (LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting M.F.A.) following the unveiling of the official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. “I truly consider today to be a defining milestone in my life’s work.”
Kehinde Wiley was selected to paint the portrait of former President Barack Obama. They are the first African-American artists commissioned by the Smithsonian to paint presidential portraits. Their artworks were revealed in a ceremony in the museum’s Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard as part of the Portrait Gallery’s 50th anniversary celebrations on February 12. President Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama delivered remarks as did Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton, National Portrait Gallery Director Kim Sajet and artists Sherald and Wiley.
Before President Obama’s departure from office, he and Mrs. Obama selected the artists to paint their likenesses for the Portrait Gallery’s collection. As part of the selection process, Sherald was interviewed by the president and first lady in the Oval Office. “Within the first few sentences of our conversation, I knew she was the one for me,” Mrs. Obama said during remarks at the ceremony. “She is well on her way to distinguishing herself as one of the great artists of her generation.”
Winner of the Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition for the painting Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance), Sherald joined MICA’s Painting faculty as the McMillan/Stewart Endowed Chair at the beginning of the fall 2017 semester. The Smithsonian commission follows a string of recent successes, including acquisitions by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Her work was also included in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s “Fictions” exhibition, and her first major solo show will open in May 2018 at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
“For 50 years, the National Portrait Gallery has told the story of America through the people who have impacted this country’s history and culture,” Sajet said in a statement prior to the unveiling. “We are thrilled to present to the nation these remarkable portraits of our 44th president, Barack Obama, and former First Lady, Michelle Obama, painted by two of the country’s most dynamic contemporary artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. As a museum of history and art, we have learned over the past half-century that the best portraiture has the power to bring world leaders into dialogue with everyday Americans. These two paintings fall into that category, and we believe they will serve as an inspiration for generations to come.”