After a sheet covering the painting by Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald was removed, the former first lady looked momentarily startled, before she quickly caught herself and started beaming.
Speaking at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, she later admitted she was “a little overwhelmed, to say the least”, according to CNN.
The 44th president appeared more happy with the way he had been portrayed by Kehinde Wiley, a Yale University-trained painter known for his depiction of African-Americans posed in the style of Old Masters
“How about that? That’s pretty sharp,” he said, looking at the painting that showed him sitting against a backdrop of green foliage.
“I tried to negotiate less grey hair and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well.”
Reports suggested the couple looked at the portfolios of up to 24 artists before choosing the individuals they wanted to create the portraits that will join those of other former presidents and first ladies in the gallery’s collection. Both of the artists are African American, and Mr Wiley was the first black artist to receive a commission to complete a presidential portrait for the gallery.
“What I was always struck by when I saw his portraits was the degree to which they challenged our ideas of power and privilege,” Mr Obama said of Mr Wiley.
He said of Ms Sherald, winner of the National Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition and whose work frequently highlights issues of social justice: “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.”
Ms Obama said she was thinking about the impact Ms Sherald’s work will have on “girls and girls of colour”, according to the network.
“They will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution,” she said. “And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.”
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