‘The Obama Effect’: POTUS and Forever First Lady Portraits Draw More Than 1 Million Visitors to Museum

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama stand next to their newly unveiled portraits during a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, on Feb. 12, 2018, in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Mark Wilson (Getty Images)

Let’s be clear, before The National Portrait Gallery unveiled the presidential portraits of Barack Obama, by Kehinde Wiley, and Michelle Obama, by Amy Sherald, most of us had not checked the 50-year old museum on our D.C. things to do list.

However, like the world, the Obamas changed things.

In fact, according to the Washington Post, in the year since the modern, colorful depictions have gone on display, more than 2.3 million visitors came through to see the only president we claim, and our forever first lady—about a million more than in 2017.


National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet, called the uptick in visits “the Obama effect,” and described their historical significance:

Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, the artists the Obamas had chosen, were the first African Americans to paint the portraits of a president or first lady for the National Portrait Gallery, and from the moment of the unveiling, it was clear that both had borrowed from, and broken with, the canon of traditional portraiture. Wiley chose to seat the president in a chair, wearing a suit but no tie, looking directly out of the canvas. The pose is similar to that of George Peter Alexander Healy’s Abraham Lincoln, Elaine de Kooning’s John F. Kennedy, and Robert Anderson’s George W. Bush, all portraits that Wiley had seen on walks through the galleries. But it was the background of rampant foliage and flowers symbolizing periods of the president’s life—chrysanthemums for Chicago, jasmine for Hawaii and Indonesia, African lilies for Kenya, and rosebuds for love—that was so extraordinary, making Obama appear at once timeless and contemporary.

The portrait of Michelle Obama elicited more commentary. Attired in a geometric-patterned dress by the designer Michelle Smith, which reminded the artist of modernist art and Gee’s Bend quilts created by the descendants of slaves, the former first lady was presented as both modern and historical.

In a word, the Obamas made the National Portrait Gallery hot. You’re welcome.

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Angela Helm

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.