National Portrait Gallery unveils Barack and Michelle Obama portraits


Barack Obama’s official portrait is here—and it’s already a meme

Everyone made the same joke.


Tiffany Kelly

Layer 8

Posted on Feb 12, 2018   Updated on May 22, 2021, 1:13 am CDT

The official portraits of the Obamas were revealed today, and the internet is here for them. The portraits depict former President Barack Obama surrounded by lush greenery and Michelle Obama in a flowing evening gown. Both portraits look far more modern than previous presidential portraits commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

Here are the portraits, side by side. Kehinde Wiley painted the former president, and Amy Sherald painted the first lady. Both artists are African-American.

The portraits were widely praised on Twitter. Director Ava DuVernay tweeted images of the portraits and wrote, “Reminds me to hope.”

Chrissy Teigen spoke for many when she tweeted Barack Obama’s portrait and wrote, “come back.”

But it didn’t take long for the internet to generate memes based on the portraits. Let’s look at Barack Obama’s portrait again. What do you see? Some people see a beautifully detailed portrait of our previous president…

…while other people saw the popular reaction GIF of Homer Simpson disappearing into a hedge.

Here’s Homer disappearing into Obama’s portrait:

An alternate reading of the portrait: The green background is a subtle hint at Obama’s (unlikely but possible) current lifestyle.

If you look at Wiley’s other work, you can see the artist often incorporates plants in the background of his portraits.

The background of Barack Obama’s portrait is also symbolic of his life, the New York Times reported:

African blue lilies represent Kenya, his father’s birthplace; jasmine stands for Hawaii, where Mr. Obama himself was born; chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, reference the city where his political career began, and where he met his wife.

But on Twitter, context is often lost. People were more interested in serving up jokes or criticizing the portraits than appreciating the art or remembering Obama as a president.

If you want to see the portraits in real life, they will be on view at the Smithsonian starting Feb. 13.

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*First Published: Feb 12, 2018, 12:48 pm CST