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Obama Portraits Drawing Huge Crowds to Gallery

By Peggy McGlone | Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The Smithsonian’s presidential portraits are feeling the selfie love.

The new paintings of former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, attracted big crowds to the National Portrait Gallery last week, where thousands of visitors lined up for hours to see the works and snap selfies in front of them.

The gallery commissioned contemporary powerhouse Kehinde Wiley and emerging star Amy Sherald to create the paintings of the former first couple. The portraits attracted international attention when they were unveiled Feb. 12, and the enthusiasm continued during the first week they were on view to the public.

More than 72,100 visitors – including 50,000 during the long Presidents’ Day weekend – entered the museum during the first week, officials said. Those numbers are three times greater than last year’s holiday weekend, which attracted 16,041 visitors.

“What I loved most about it is people are talking about portraiture,” said NPG Director Kim Sajet, who milled about the gallery Sunday afternoon. “There was a lot of intrigue about them, they had heard about them, and they had a lot of questions.”

The works are surprising, which is part of their appeal, according to Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott. Wiley and Sherald “have combined traditional representation with elements that underscore the complexity of their subjects, and the historic fact of their political rise. And both painters have managed to create compelling likenesses without sacrificing key aspects of their signature styles.”

Wiley’s portrait of the 44th president shows Obama leaning forward in a chair surrounded by vibrant green foliage that includes references to Chicago, Hawaii and Kenya. Sherald’s portrait Michelle Obama depicts the first lady in a dramatic printed dress before a blue background.

Sajet said she fielded many questions about the unusual works, especially about Sherald’s use of gray skin tones, a reference to black-and-white photography.

“(Sherald) sees this as part of the trajectory of African-American portraiture, trying to take the race out of the person,” Sajet said. “There was lots of debate and that’s what has gotten me excited, that people want to talk about it.”

Elisabeth Kilday, visitor services manager for the NPG and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which share the historic building, described a festive atmosphere in the galleries and courtyard, which on Saturday hosted family programs tied to the holiday.

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