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Obama portraits to go on year-long tour to museums around the U.S.

Kehinde Wiley: Art of a presidential portrait

The famed portraits of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama will soon be more accessible than ever before. The two paintings will go on tour next year, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., announced this week.

"From the moment of their unveiling at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in February 2018, the museum's official portraits of President Barack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama have become iconic," the museum said in a press statement. 

Both portraits have received an unprecedented public response, the museum says. So they will be going on a five-city tour beginning in June 2021, allowing more viewers to see them firsthand. 

Former U.S. President Obama attends Obamas' portrait unveiling at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington
Former President Barack Obama stands between painted portraits of himself and of former first lady Michelle Obama during an unveiling ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., February 12, 2018. Jim Bourg / REUTERS

Mr. Obama's portrait, by Kehinde Wiley, and Mrs. Obama's portrait, by Amy Sherald, will first travel to the couple's former home, Chicago. The portraits will then visit Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston, staying in each city for about two months each.

The national tour will end in May 2022. In addition to the portraits, the traveling exhibit will also include audio-visual elements, teacher workshops, curatorial presentations, and a richly illustrated book from the National Portrait Gallery and Princeton University Press

The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery features a wide array of portraits of historic figures, from Alexander Hamilton to Bob Hope, and Kelly Slater to Rosa Parks. Each work of art is unique in its own way. For example, Hope's portrait is a sculpture, while Steve Jobs' is a simple black-and-white photograph.

The Obamas broke the mold when it came to presidential portraits, which are often formal and traditional in style. Instead, Mr. Obama's portrait shows him sitting casually on a chair in front of a wall of vibrant flowers. Mrs. Obama wears a flowing gown with a distinctive geometric print. 

Like the Obama presidency, the non-traditional portraits represent a break from the past.

"I'm also thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall," Mrs. Obama said at the unveiling ceremony in 2018. 

Her portrait's impact on young girls became almost palpable when a 2-year-old girl stopped dead in her tracks to stare intently at the first lady's painting. A stranger snapped a photo of the little girl, Parker Curry, and that image went viral, coming to symbolize the impact and inspiration embodied by the first lady.

parker.jpg
2-year-old Parker Curry went viral for her love of Michelle Obama – and she recreated her love with her Halloween costume. Ben Hines/Jessica Curry
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