Obama Portraits Revealed to Have Cost $500,000 as Criticism of Paintings Grows

Obama Portraits
National Portrait Gallery

Art critics appear to remain split over former first lady Michelle Obama's portrait.

The price tag for the portraits of President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama unveiled at The National Portrait Gallery Tuesday has been revealed as the paintings' critical reception remains mixed. 

The paintings cost $500,000 — and some believe Michelle Obama's portrait doesn't even look like her.

The New York Times art critic Holland Cotter says it "could be almost anyone's face" but The Guardian's Jonathan Jones called the painting "a modern-day Mona Lisa." 

President Obama perhaps foresaw the conversation that would be sparked by the paintings.

“The arts have always been central to the American experience. They provoke thought, challenge our assumptions, and shape how we define our narrative as a country,” he said at Monday's unveiling. 

It's also been revealed that the backdrop on the 44th president’s portrait — by artist Kehinde Wiley — is filled with symbolism of his upbringing. 

The jasmine flowers represent Hawaii, Obama's birthplace; chrysanthemums to symbolize Chicago, where he and his family lived before the White House; and African blue lilies to represent his Kenyan heritage. 

Dorothy Moss, the curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, told The Washington Post that artist Amy Sherald, who painted Mrs. Obama’s portrait the way she did to highlight the importance of African-Americans. 

“She bent down and looked at them and said, ‘I painted this for you so that when you go to a museum you will see someone who looks like you on the wall,'" Moss recalled after seeing Sherald speak to young African-American girls at a gallery talk. 

The Obamas became the first presidential couple to be painted by African American artists. 

“To call this experience humbling would be an understatement,” President Obama said at the unveiling. "That’s because, as a former president, when you choose an artist to describe your likeness, you have the opportunity to shape, quite literally, how someone sees the office of the American presidency. And how they might see themselves in that presidency."