The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has unveiled its portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, generating an emotional response from the former US President and First Lady.
Standing at just over seven feet tall, the colourful portraits are the first presidential portraits to feature African Americans in the gallery’s collection – and the first to be painted by African American artists. The portraits are even more significant in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, in that they will sit alongside early presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who were slaveholders. Michelle Obama’s great-great grandparents were slaves.
Barack Obama acknowledged the significance of the moment on Instagram. “To call this experience humbling would be an understatement”, he wrote. “Generations of Americans — and young people from all around the world — will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this country through a new lens. They’ll walk out of that museum with a better sense of the America we all love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Inclusive and optimistic. And I hope they’ll walk out more empowered to go and change their worlds.”
Michelle expressed her personal delight – and disbelief – at the reality of the portraits and what they mean for African American children. “As a young girl, even in my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined this moment. Nobody in my family has ever had a portrait”, she wrote on Instagram. “This is all a little bit overwhelming, especially when I think about all of the young people who will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this, including so many young girls and young girls of color who don’t often see their images displayed in beautiful and iconic ways. I am so proud to help make that kind of history.”