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.
Former President Barack Obama’s official portrait was just unveiled at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, a rite of passage for most former presidents, all of whom have their portraits hanging in the museum https://t.co/1w4arKRmcb pic.twitter.com/SSns8bFb95
— CNN (@CNN) February 12, 2018
The official portraits for former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are being unveiled at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery
— CNN (@CNN) February 12, 2018
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 official portraits. Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley. Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald. pic.twitter.com/xZzBYTJhKn
— Dan Zak (@MrDanZak) February 12, 2018
The portraits were widely praised on Twitter. Director Ava DuVernay tweeted images of the portraits and wrote, “Reminds me to hope.”
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) February 12, 2018
Chrissy Teigen spoke for many when she tweeted Barack Obama’s portrait and wrote, “come back.”
come back pic.twitter.com/R3SZ7Pmdf5
— christine teigen (@chrissyteigen) February 12, 2018
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…
Amid the ferns pic.twitter.com/K2PyLdQEWR
— Matt Viser (@mviser) February 12, 2018
…while other people saw the popular reaction GIF of Homer Simpson disappearing into a hedge.
— Christopher Ingraham (@_cingraham) February 12, 2018
This is all I can think about with Obama's portrait pic.twitter.com/hPEsrjO0Pt
— Jennifer Bendery (@jbendery) February 12, 2018
Here’s Homer disappearing into Obama’s portrait:
— Shoshana Weissmann, Sloth Committee Chair 🦥 (@senatorshoshana) February 12, 2018
An alternate reading of the portrait: The green background is a subtle hint at Obama’s (unlikely but possible) current lifestyle.
We get it, you smoke weed now pic.twitter.com/un2B9vnA7k
— Rachel Wolfson (@wolfiecomedy) February 12, 2018
If you look at Wiley’s other work, you can see the artist often incorporates plants in the background of his portraits.
A thing is happening where people not familiar with Kehinde are wondering why Obama's portrait looks like that.
Here are some of Kehinde's previous work. This is all very in line and to have been expected. pic.twitter.com/hq2aYXKfug
— kyle a.b. (@kyalbr) February 12, 2018
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.