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Barack and Michelle Obama's official portraits unveiled at Smithsonian

The former president chose Kehinde Wiley to paint his portrait, while the former first lady chose Amy Sherald for hers.
Barack and Michelle Obama stand beside their portraits after their unveiling at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

It's a momentous occasion for all former presidents and first ladies: the unveiling of their official portraits.

On Monday, Barack and Michelle Obama experienced just that at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The 44th president chose Kehinde Wiley, a popular New York artist known for his large-scale, old-master-style portraits of African-Americans, to paint his portrait, while the former first lady chose Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald for hers.

Wiley and Sherald are the first African-American artists to paint official presidential portraits for the Smithsonian.

In a fresh departure from more traditional presidential portraits, Wiley's portrait of Obama finds him sitting with his arms crossed, surrounded by colorful foliage.

"How about that? That's pretty sharp," the former president said as he took the podium.

Obama even delivered some of his famous dad jokes during the special occasion.

Former President Obama and artist Kehinde Wiley unveil Obama's official portrait at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery on Monday.Getty Images

"I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde's artistic integrity would not allow (him) to do what I asked," he said. "I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well."

On a serious note, the former president also talked about the cultural importance of Wiley's work.

"What I was always struck by whenever I saw his portraits, was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power, wealth, privilege," he said. "And the way that he would take extraordinary care and precision and vision in recognizing the beauty and the grace and the dignity of people who are so often invisible in our lives, and put them on a grand stage."

"The people in our families, people who built this country, built this capital, served food, took out the garbage ... Kehinde lifted them up, and gave them a platform, and said they belonged at the center of American life," he added.

Obama also took a moment to praise Sherald for capturing his wife's "hotness."

"Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love," he told the artist.

In her portrait, the former first lady appears in a flowing dress amid a pale blue background.

"As I look at this portrait, I'm a little overwhelmed. I'm humbled, honored, proud," she said. "But most of all, I'm so incredibly grateful to all those who came before me in this journey."

Michelle honored her mother, who attended the ceremony, and also talked about the impact her official portrait will have on young girls of color.

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"Of course, I think about my mommy, Marian Robinson, always putting herself last on her list," she said. "I'm also thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls, and girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place, and they will look up, and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution."

"I know about the impact it'll have on their lives," she added, "because I was one of those girls."