The former president and first lady gave remarks at the unveiling, with Mrs. Obama first saying how “overwhelmed, humbled, proud and grateful” she was to be honored with the portrait, which depicted her sitting in a long, flowing, colorful dress amid a pale blue background.
Mrs. Obama thanked her family — including “my Mommy,” Marian Robinson, who was sitting in the front row at the unveiling — and shared the story of how she first met Sherald.
Mrs. Obama said she and Sherald hit it off immediately when the artist came to meet the former president and first lady.
“She physically turned to me and said, ‘I’m really hoping we can work together,’ ” Mrs. Obama recalled.
“After that she and I started talking and Barack kind of faded into the woodwork,” she joked, adding that she and Sherald shared a “sista-girl connection.”
The former president spoke after his wife and began by praising Sherald for capturing the “charm and hotness of the woman that I love.”
He also gave a “special shoutout to my man Joe Biden — and an even more special shout-out to my mother-in-law, who in addition to providing the hotness genes, also has been such an extraordinary rock and foundation stone for our family.”
“We are so grateful to her and we love her so much,” he added.
Obama’s portrait showed him wearing a black suit and sitting in a chair in front of a lush backdrop of bright green leaves and multi-colored flowers. Wiley explained the background includes a chrysanthemum, the official flower of Obama’s adopted hometown of Chicago, along with a flower pointing toward Hawaii, Obama’s birthplace, and another flower pointing toward Kenya, where Obama’s father was born. Wiley said he was painting the former president in the context of his life’s story and his path.
Obama, like his wife, said he’s never had a portrait done of himself, nor has anyone in his family, as far as he knows. “I do have my high school yearbook picture, which is no great shakes,” he joked to laughter from the crowd, which included some famous faces like Tom Hanks, wife Rita Wilson and Steven Spielberg. (Hanks and Wilson attended as personal guests of the Obamas, while Spielberg was among the major donors who funded the commission.)
Obama said working with Wiley was a “great joy,” though he added that the artist was “working at a disadvantage because his subject was less becoming, not as fly” as Mrs. Obama.
RELATED VIDEO: Michelle Obama Talks Life After the White House – and Why Barack Is Mad About Their New Home
Ever the politician, Obama said he tried to “negotiate” less gray hair and smaller ears, to no avail.
“Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked,” the former president joked.
“Maybe the one area where there were some concessions was … Kehinde’s work elevates [his subjects] and puts them in these fairly elaborate settings. And so his initial impulse maybe in the work was to also elevate me and put me in these settings with partridges and scepters, and thrones and chifforobes and mounting me on horses. And I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon. We’ve got bring it down just a touch. And that’s what he did.”