The sneaky political message in Michelle Obama's portrait dress

Barack Michelle Obama

The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery Unveils Portrait of President Barack Obama

Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama stood on stage as their official portraits were unveiled at a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington. President George W. Bush had his official White House portrait unveiling in May 2012 - late in President Obama's first term.

The paintings were revealed Monday at the gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian group of museums.

This, of course, was not the first time Smith had the opportunity to dress Michelle Obama, in fact, Meredith Koop, the former first lady's stylist, often reached out to the Milly brand. They're what set Wiley's and Sherald's works apart from the other presidential portraits, many of which are naturalistic, straight-forward, a little buttoned-up and rendered in browns and grays. "You exist in our minds and our hearts in the way that you do because we can see ourselves in you", Sherald said. Although each flower on the official portrait depicted his journey on Earth - chrysanthemum, the official flower of Chicago, Hawaii's jasmine, blue lilies from Africa - all symbolic of Obama's heritage, it reminded others of something else.

"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", she said. Although Sherald selected a more subdued palette for her painting, her subject appears no less regal.

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Sherald was 30 years old, finishing graduate school and training for a triathlon in 2004 when she chose to see a doctor. The portraits will be available for public viewing starting Tuesday. "And her just being herself was a profound statement that really engaged all of us because she is just accessible, and I think that she is ideally the same as the sitters that I've had before".

Sitting on an elaborate wooden chair that seems to float on the canvas, his image also draws attention for the contrasts between his serious and thoughtful look, and his black suit, with a white shirt casual style and devoid of tie.

Sherald thanked her subject and explained the way she transforms her portraits of American people from individual subjects into archetypes.

Valerie Mercer, curator of African American art at the DIA says she isn't concerned with the facial detail on Sherald's painting because art is about an artist's impression of reality. His work, Obama said, like our democracy, "is not simply celebrating the high and the mighty and expecting that the country unfolds from the top down, but rather that it comes from the bottom up".

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Sherald's portrait shows Michelle Obama posing in a gown designed by Michelle Smith featuring geometric shapes reminiscent of African textiles.

Several people took to Twitter to counter criticism that Ms Obama's portrait did not look like her.

Kehinde Wiley, the artist behind Obama's portrait, is not some run-of-the-mill painter, however.

"When I'm approaching these guys, there's a presupposed engagement", Wiley told Art Newspaper in 2008.

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Obama called his grand seven-foot portrait "pretty sharp". "They exist in a place of the past, the present and the future", she says.

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