Mrs. Obama selected artist Amy Sherald for her likeness and the former president chose Kehinde Wiley to paint his. The pair are the first black artists to paint presidential portraits for the Smithsonian.
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A local look at the presidential portraitist’s style can be had with a visit to the DAI where one of Wiley’s portraits, “The Honourable Augustus Keppel, Admiral of the Blue II,” is on long-term loan.
“I think Kehinde Wiley has become one of the world’s best-known artists over the past decade,” said Jerry N. Smith, chief curator at the DAI. “He is extremely prominent and extremely prolific.”
Wiley is known for painting famous figures from the world of hip-hop and sports, as well as the less well-known you might meet on the street.
“He allows the sitters to flip through art history books and select a European painting they admire and then he has them take that pose,” said Smith.
An African-American man is the subject of Wiley’s piece at the DAI. The painting is based on 18th century artist Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Admiral Augustus Keppel.
“It’s a terrific example of Kehinde Wiley’s work and it shows that prominent portraiture doesn’t have to be just of the old dead white guys,” said Smith. “The story, the fabric of America, is so much greater than just historical white men.”
The DAI painting, whose subject wears a black sleeveless undershirt, has similarities to the newly unveiled portrait of the 44th President of the United States, said Smith. Both have a high degree of realism, are larger than life size, and have intricately stylized backgrounds.
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“In this portrait Wiley uses designs taken from 17th and 18th century wall paper. In the Obama portrait, its foliage that has connections to his place in Chicago, Hawaii and Washington.”
“It’s really spectacular that Obama picked Wiley to do his official portrait, said Smith. “It’s one of those things that if you want to see a Wiley, come now to see it.”