Barack and Michelle Obama portraits unveiled in Washington

Former US President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama have unveiled their portraits at a ceremony in Washington. The Obamas hand-picked the two African-American artists who created the large paintings.

Portraits depicting former US President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, were unveiled at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington on Monday.

Barack Obama's portrait was painted by New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley, who is known for his large-scale old-master-style paintings of African-Americans. Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald was commissioned to paint Michelle Obama's portrait.

Sherald and Wiley are the first black artists to be commissioned by the Smithsonian to paint a president or first lady. Prior to the Obamas' portraits, only one other African-American artist had ever painted a presidential portrait.

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Symbolic flowers in Obama portrait

In his life-size portrait, Obama is portrayed seated on a wooden chair, surrounded by lush greenery dotted with bursts of flowers.

The flowers symbolize important influences in the former president's life: jasmine for his home state of Hawaii, African blue lilies for his late father, and chrysanthemums for Chicago, the city where he kick-started his political career.

"I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde's artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked," Obama joked at the ceremony. "I tried to negotiate smaller ears — struck out on that as well."

He said it was a "joy" to work with Wiley and described the artist's work as taking ordinary people and lifting them up by painting them in grandiose settings.

"In my small way I believe that is what politics should be about," Obama said. "Not simply celebrating the high and the mighty."

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Michelle Obama was depicted in gray, black and white tones with pops of color

Michelle Obama hopes portrait will inspire girls

Michelle Obama's portrait depicts the former first lady in tones of white, black and gray on a blue background. The only touches of color are at the bottom, in the red, yellow and pink on her gown's hem.

The former first lady said she hopes the portrait will help inspire young girls of color in the years to come.

"They will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them, hanging on the wall of this great American institution," she said. "I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls."

Barack Obama praised Sherald for capturing the "grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman that I love."

The National Portrait Gallery's tradition of commissioning presidential portraits is relatively new, beginning with former President George H.W. Bush. The other portraits in its collection were either purchased or given as gifts.

Artist Simmie Lee Knox became the first African-American ever to be commissioned to paint a presidential portrait, when he painted former President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's official White House portraits, which are separate from those that hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

The Obamas: 8 years in the White House

Married ... with children

When the Obamas moved to the White House in 2009, their daughters Malia (left) and Sasha were 10 and 7. Personable and friendly, they were the epitome of the ordinary American family.

The Obamas: 8 years in the White House

Hands-on president

Barack Obama comes across as approachable and down-to-earth. During a family visit at the Oval Office, he readily bowed his head so the little boy of a White House employee could touch his hair: "I want to know if your hair is like mine."

The Obamas: 8 years in the White House

Super Bowl superlatives

The president and the first lady donned 3-D glasses to watch the Super Bowl at a party at the White House - in their very own movie theater.

The Obamas: 8 years in the White House

Family time

The United States played Japan in the final match of the Women's World Cup soccer tournament in 2011 - a match that had the Obamas on the edge of their seats as they watched on TV. Pete Souza, the official White House photographer, captured this private family moment.

The Obamas: 8 years in the White House

First dog

A gift from Senator Edward Kennedy, Bo the Portuguese Water Dog joined the Obama family in 2009. Four years later, Sunny, a female of the same breed, made the family complete.

The Obamas: 8 years in the White House

Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man

Caught in Spider-Man's sticky web - oh no! The most powerful man in the world, always a good sport, plays along with the child of a White House staffer in 2012, just before Halloween.

The Obamas: 8 years in the White House

Behind every strong man ...

... there's a great woman, as we all know. Who stands behind whom in the Obama family? America's first lady is more popular than her husband - her ratings are almost constantly at 70 percent, while the president's dropped to 40 percent at one point. The Obamas are regarded as a dream couple.

The Obamas: 8 years in the White House


Many Americans adore Michelle Obama for juggling her role as "mom-in-chief" and the more political role of first lady. Above, she and a group of students are harvesting sweet potatoes in the carefully tended White House kitchen garden - a pet project.

The Obamas: 8 years in the White House

Not scared to mess around

The world follows her political engagement just as attentively as her choice of clothes. Always in the limelight, Michelle Obama manages to show style even sitting next to Elmo (left) and Rosalita. "What I have never been afraid of is to be a little silly, and you can engage people that way," she once told "Variety" magazine.

The Obamas: 8 years in the White House

'This Is For My Girls'

The first lady demonstrated this again in a clip for the cult series "Carpool Karaoke," which has received more than 50 million views on YouTube. While James Corden's car circled the White House grounds, Michelle Obama and Missy Elliott belt out "This Is For My Girls" for the cameras.

The Obamas: 8 years in the White House

Inauguration selfie

With such cool parents, Sasha and Malia sometimes display a little public coolness themselves. While their father was inaugurated for the second time as president in 2013, they posed for a joint selfie.

The Obamas: 8 years in the White House

Passionate family man

Malia celebrated her 18th birthday while still living in the White House. The outgoing US president used the occasion to show a less statesman-like side. "Just because it's the job of a father to embarrass his daughters, I've got one last job," he explained at the end of a speech - and launched into "Happy Birthday."

The Obamas: 8 years in the White House

Bye-bye, Obamas ...

Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama, now 15, are now moving out of the White House. But they are not yet turning their backs on the US capital; Sasha will still be attending school in the city. In the fall, Malia intends to begin studying at the prestigious Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

rs/kms (AP, dpa, Reuters)