The Obama Portraits Are Coming to Chicago

Daniel Hautzinger
(L): “Barack Obama” by Kehinde Wiley, oil on canvas, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. (R): “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama” by Amy Sherald, oil on linen, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
(L): “Barack Obama” by Kehinde Wiley, oil on canvas, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. (R): “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama” by Amy Sherald, oil on linen, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

The official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama will be coming to Chicago during a five-city tour beginning next year. Housed at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, the paintings were widely discussed upon their unveiling in 2018, given their non-traditional style, and boosted attendance by 311 percent on the first President's Day Weekend that they were on display, according to the National Portrait Gallery. Both were also the first portraits by African American artists to be commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery (the artists were chosen by the Obamas): Barack Obama's is by Kehinde Wiley, Michelle Obama's by Amy Sherald. The portrait of the former president features a nod to Chicago in its floral background, where chrysanthemums, Chicago's official flower, represent his life in Chicago, along with jasmine for his Hawaiian childhood and African blue liles for his Kenyan father.

The two portraits will be on display at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2021 from June 18 to August 15. They will then continue to four more cities over the following year: Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Houston. 

Presidential portraits are commissioned after the term of a president ends, so, depending on the results of the 2020 election, by the time the Obama portraits go on tour, there may portraits of President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump in the National Portrait Gallery.

A little over a month after the Obama portraits were unveiled, Trump signed the Eliminating Government-funded Oil-painting (EGO) Act into law, prohibiting the use of federal funds to pay for federal officers and employees’ official oil portraits. The Obama portraits, as with most official portraits of presidents and first ladies, were commissioned with private funding, so the law was meant more to target official portraits of functionaries such as House Speakers. The annual federal budget had included limited bans on federal funding of oil portraits since 2013, but the EGO Act made them permanent.


WTTW Passport members can watch Kehinde Wiley, the artist of Barack Obama's portrait, on Finding Your Roots.