'Where are the Obamas?': Paintings of Barack and Michelle brought a million more people to Portrait Gallery

The Washington Post

Justin Philip was back in line for the second time that day, waiting for another chance to snap a selfie with Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama.

“It’s the only reason I’m here,” the New York resident said of his visit to Washington’s National Portrait Gallery, where the paintings of the former president and first lady Michelle Obama, by Baltimore’s Amy Sherald, have drawn millions of visitors in the year since they were unveiled. “He was the first president I ever cared about.”

“I bring everybody to see them,” said Merene Philip, Philip’s cousin and weekend host.

The Obama portraits have catapulted the Smithsonian museum to the top tier of Washington’s attractions by dramatically increasing attendance. The Old Patent Office Building — the historic home to the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum — had a record-breaking 2.3 million visitors in 2018, about a million more than in 2017.

The paintings have elicited smiles, tears and prayers from the steady stream of visitors who have queued up to see them. Some gaze with admiration, some with reverence. Almost all snap photos.

“I thought this is the closest that I’ll probably ever get to [Obama], and of what he represented — hope and love and progress,” said Kamilah Chambers of Katy, Tex., after viewing — and photographing — Wiley’s work.

The portrait hangs on its own wall at the end of the “America’s Presidents” gallery, which features the nation’s former commanders in chief. The Sherald portrait of Michelle Obama is displayed in a third-floor gallery alongside a Wiley portrait of LL Cool J and portraits of Beyoncé, Denyce Graves and Toni Morrison.

Unveiled with fanfare on Feb. 12, 2018, the portraits attracted attention for the historic choice of African American artists as well as their popular subjects. The paintings, which were commissioned by the gallery and paid for with private funds, are part of its permanent collection.

The Obamas selected Wiley and Sherald from a slate of artists suggested by museum officials. Wiley’s unconventional portrait shows Obama leaning forward in a wooden chair and surrounded by vibrant green foliage and flowers, including jasmine, lilies and chrysanthemums, which reference elements of his personal history. He is dressed in a suit but no tie, and his casual pose draws attention to his intense gaze.

In the Sherald portrait, the first lady is wearing a dramatic geometric gown in front of a pale blue background.

“She looks regal, and yet soft,” said Chambers.

The Obama portraits are a big reason for the dramatic jump in attendance, museum staff said. Visitors used to approach the information desk with the question “Where are the presidents?”

“Now it’s ‘Where are the Obamas?’ It was eight for eight this afternoon,” said volunteer Mary Francis Koerner.

Koerner, of Kingstowne, Va., and fellow volunteer Carolyn Kulik of Bethesda have witnessed firsthand what National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet calls “the Obama effect.” Both women, who have worked at the museum’s information desk for 12 years, said they have never seen new works have such an impact.

“They have brought in so many people,” Koerner said. “After 4:30 there’s an uptick of the younger generation, and that’s who they come to see.”

The museum’s efforts to capi­tal­ize on the paintings’ popularity are most obvious in the gift shop. Books by and about the Obamas greet visitors at the entrance, while inside there are more than two dozen items, including mugs, prints, magnets, scarves, umbrellas and coasters, all emblazoned with the Wiley and Sherald designs.

Sajet said a visit to see the portraits seems to be a kind of secular pilgrimage, a journey to witness something both communal and personal. And conversations with visitors bore this out.

Get to know Amy Sherald, the Baltimore artist painting Michelle Obama's official portrait »

One woman said she was seeking reassurance by visiting the Obama portrait on the day President Trump declared a national emergency on the southern border, while Winsome Daley of Washington said she came for the history.

Tershia Ellis of Troy, N.Y., who had just left a Black Lives Matter protest, posed with her children — Zaryus, 10, and Zoey, 7 — in front of the presidential portrait.

“We love the Obamas. We’re deeply into them,” she said.

“He’s the first black president,” Zaryus said, adding that he thought the painting was “amazing because of the all of the flowers representing the places he’s from.”

Ivhannya Wong, a D.C. resident who was visiting the gallery for the first time, said the Wiley portrait shows how times have changed. Most of the other portraits in the popular “America’s Presidents” exhibition are formal, stuffy even, and they’re all similar.

Not Wiley’s depiction of the 44th president.

“It’s awesome,” Wong said, adding that the painting reflects the subject. “He made change, he made history.”

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