Student Ambassador Winter Series: The Obama Portraits

By Annabel Steele

There are a lot of advantages to living in Washington, D.C., not the least of which is that practically everything is free.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Not everything is free, not by a long shot. But the monuments and everything associated with the Smithsonian is free, and that’s a pretty sweet deal. Every time I’m home for break and feeling a little bored, I can head to the zoo or the world-class museums downtown and my only expense is a few bucks for the metro.

I like to think I take advantage of all of these opportunities. I had field trips to probably every Smithsonian museum in elementary school, and ever since then I’ve loved going downtown to appreciate the art, history and culture. My favorite is the National Museum of American History—what can I say, I’m a sucker for the actual star-spangled banner. One of my favorite routines over holiday breaks is heading downtown with my brother or a couple of friends and checking out a museum.

This Christmas break, though, I was fortunate enough to see something I haven’t seen in person yet. My friends and I found a couple of free hours in our schedule and decided to visit the National Portrait Gallery. Now, there’s plenty of incredible art in the Portrait Gallery (including the Electronic Superhighway, which I’m pretty sure can hypnotize you if you aren’t careful), but we were focused on two pieces of art only: the Obama portraits.

I was studying abroad in Ireland last year when the Obama portraits were unveiled, but I remember eagerly reading the news about the ceremony and gazing at the portraits. There is something striking about the portraits even when viewed through a smartphone’s screen. In person, they are mesmerizing.

Barack Obama’s portrait hangs in the America’s Presidents gallery along with the portraits of every one of his predecessors. When I visited, there was a fairly long line of people patiently waiting to get their photo taken in front of the portrait. Visitors rushed by Kennedy, passed Reagan without a second glance and made a beeline for President Obama. The stoic look on his face, the vibrant green and the pops of colors with flowers representing important places in his life come together to form an incredible portrait worthy of a historic man.

Upstairs in the 20th Century Americans gallery, Michelle Obama’s portrait is the main draw. (I mean that literally. They had signs throughout the entire gallery directing people past the other incredible works of art and into the room where her portrait is hung.) Mrs. Obama’s portrait, like her husband’s, is enchanting. I admit that when I first saw it online, I didn’t immediately love it, but seeing it in person changed that for me. The pops of color in her dress really worked well. The room with her portrait was crowded with people milling around and gazing up at it.

As it turns out, my friends and I visited the Portrait Gallery just in time. The federal government had shut down several days before we visited, and just a few days later the Smithsonian museums followed suit. For almost a month, nobody at all could go in and see the Obama portraits. Now that the museums are open again (at least for now), I’m sure visitors are streaming in and out every day, eager to catch a glimpse of history through art. If you ever find yourself in Washington, I urge you to do the same.

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