Former US President Barack Obama joked about his ears and gray hair and praised his wife Michelle Obama's "hotness" at the unveiling of the couple's official portraits at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

For Barack Obama's portrait by Kehinde Wiley, the former president is depicted sitting in a brown chair with a backdrop of bright green leaves and colorful flowers. February 12, 2018
For Barack Obama's portrait by Kehinde Wiley, the former president is depicted sitting in a brown chair with a backdrop of bright green leaves and colorful flowers. February 12, 2018 (AFP)

Former US first couple Barack and Michelle Obama unveiled their portraits at Washington's National Portrait Gallery on Monday.

The two contrasting works by African American artists both shocked and delighted art lovers.

The paintings by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, commissioned by the museum in Washington, were revealed at a star-studded event that is a rite of passage for most former American presidents.

TRT World's Joseph Hayat has more.

Tropical hues

The museum holds portraits of all former American commanders-in-chief, but these latest additions stand in stark contrast to the more buttoned-down approach of traditional presidential portraiture.

Both show their subjects—America's first black presidential couple—looking cool and confident, a stark contrast to the bubbling swamp of anger and braggadocio that is political Washington today.

Wiley painted the ex-president against a signature lush botanical backdrop.

Obama, in a serious seated pose at the edge of a wooden chair, is enmeshed in a thicket of leaves and flowers that recall the tropical hues of the 44th president's home state of Hawaii.

"How about that? That's pretty sharp," Obama joked, as he thanked staff and friends in attendance.

The internet quickly got busy making jokes about him being stuck in a bush.

Michelle Obama said she hoped the portrait by Amy Sherald would have an impact on young girls of colour in the years ahead. February 13, 2018
Michelle Obama said she hoped the portrait by Amy Sherald would have an impact on young girls of colour in the years ahead. February 13, 2018 (AFP)

'Charm and hotness'

Obama also praised Sherald for "so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman that I love."

The Baltimore-based artist rendered Michelle Obama in her trademark grayscale, with only a few splashes of coral, pink and yellow, against an eggshell blue backdrop.

The resulting image makes the subject's race almost an afterthought.

Obama's dress—true to form for a first lady whose wardrobe was often the focus of attention—dominates the frame.

As in Sherald's previous paintings of African American subjects, Michelle Obama appears poised and powerful as she looks down on the viewer.

Obama's portrait will be hung alongside those of former presidents, including the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.

Michelle Obama's likeness will hang at the gallery until November this year.

The official portraits of the Obamas, which will be displayed at the White House, have not yet been commissioned.

Source: AFP