This week on August 27, the groundbreaking Michelle and Barack Obama Portraits will go on view at the Brooklyn Museum through October 24. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery announced earlier this year that the portraits would make a multi-city tour from June 21, 2021, through May 30, 2022. The paintings’ appearance at the Brooklyn Museum is their only Northeastern stop on their five-city tour, displayed following a two-month stint at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Since the unveiling of these two portraits of the Obamas, the Portrait Gallery has experienced a record number of visitors, not only to view these works in person but to be part of the communal experience of a particular moment in time,” Kim Sajet, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, said. “This tour is an opportunity for audiences in different parts of the country to witness how portraiture can engage people in the beauty of dialogue and shared experiences.”

Kehinde Wiley — whose hand-painted glass triptych named Go was created for the ceiling at the West 33rd Street entrance of Moynihan Train Hall and has a painting which uses Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon as a starting point in the Brooklyn Museum— painted the oil-on-canvas portrait of President Obama, which depicts him in front of a backdrop of leaves and flowers. Obama stares straight at the viewer with his arms crossed, and the foliage is symbolic of Obama’s life: jasmine references Hawaii, where Obama was born; African blue lilies represent Kenya, Obama’s father’s birthplace; and chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago, where his political career began.

Michelle Obama Kehinde Wiley portrait
Michelle Obama’s portrait as displayed in the Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

Amy Sherald painted the oil-on-linen portrait of the former First Lady. Michelle Obama gazes directly at the viewer, with her hand under her chin. She sits in front of a light blue background, and her patterned dress hints at modern influences like Pop art as well as the African-American quilt tradition.

The Obama Portraits were unveiled in February of 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery were met with great acclaim. Their images of the Obamas present a striking contrast to the formality of earlier presidential portraits and images of first ladies. The paintings also document the election of the first Black president of the U.S. and the selection of the first Black artists to be commissioned by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery for portraits of a president or first lady.

Barack Obama portrait in National Gallery by Kehinde Wiley
Barck Obama’s portrait as displayed in the Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

While at the museum, visitors will be encouraged to draw comparisons with other presidential works on view throughout the Museum’s collection galleries, including Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington and Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps.

“Through the presentation of these now-iconic works by Wiley and Sherald, as well as others across the Museum’s collection galleries, the exhibition contemplates how portraiture has given visual form to ideas of power, identity, status, and legacy throughout history,” the press release says.

Access to the Obama Portraits is not included with a general admission ticket and requires a separate exhibition ticket reserved online. On August 28, the museum will host a free opening celebration, and on September 2, attend “Brooklyn Talks: The Sartorial Vision of Michelle Obama.” The schedule for the remaining locations on the tour is:

  • Art Institute of Chicago, June 18, 2021-August 15, 2021
  • Brooklyn Museum, August 27, 2021-October 24, 2021
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art: November 5, 2012-January 2, 2022
  • High Museum of Art in Atlanta: January 14, 2022-March 13, 2022
  • The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston: March 25, 2022-May 30, 2022

Next, check out the Top 10 Secrets of Park Slope!