On Monday, the National Portrait Gallery unveiled portraits of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama painted by, respectively, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. The new paintings will be part of the exhibit Americarsquos Presidents at the National Portrait Gallery, the only place outside the White House with a complete collection of presidential portraits from George Washington to Barack Obama.
The earliest presidential portraits sometimes served as the only images of the president. These days, it#8217s easier than ever for the White House to take and share photographs of the President on social media, but paintings like the Obamas#8217 portraits mdash images of which can be seen online, with the works on view to the public at the National Portrait Gallery starting on Tuesday mdash still offer another read on a president.
#8220Photographs are candids, but the portrait is a more careful, thoughtful, reading of a president and his personality,#8221 Kate Lemay, a historian at the museum who curated the exhibition, told TIME.The First Portrait
It#8217s almost certain that you#8217ve seen the portrait of George Washington that Gilbert Stuart painted in 1796. Versions of the portrait hang in the White House and the National Portrait Gallery, and you might also have a different Stuart depiction of Washington in your wallet, as he created the image that was the model for the Washington who appears on the $1 bill.
#8220The composition is often thought to evoke the moment when Washington addressed Congress in December 1795 in support of the Jay Treaty, which resolved lingering tensions between Britain and the United States,#8221 according to the book that accompanies the American Presidents exhibit. #8220Pennsylvania Senator William Bingham and his wife, Anne, commissioned the painting in the spring of 1796 to celebrate the treaty and presented it to English statesman William Petty, first Marquess of Lansdowne, who as prime minister had negotiated the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783.#8221
Congress bought the painting, and President Adams placed it in the President#8217s House, where it was famously saved from potential ruin during the War of 1812.
Commissioning portraits of leaders and prominent society figures was one of the many European traditions that came across the pond when the U.S. was founded. But Stuart set an important precedent for future portraits of specifically American leaders, in terms of the composition. Though Washington holds a sword, as a nod to the President#8217s successful military career, Stuart made sure that his presentation didn#8217t make Washington look like a monarch or a military figure, #8220to set the precedent that the president is a man of the people, is elected by the people, so he [looks like he#8217s] part of the people,#8221 according to Lemay.