Unveiling the Process: Commissioning Portraits of the President and First Lady

Take an inside look at the National Portrait Gallery’s process for commissioning official portraits of the president and first lady of the United States.


At the National Portrait Gallery, America’s Presidents showcases the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House. It lies at the heart of the museum’s mission to tell the story of the United States through the individuals who have shaped it. Many of the oldest portraits in the collection, including Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington, came to the museum as gifts or purchases.

Installation of Barack Obama in America's Presidents (2018) by Ben Bloom/NPGSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In the 1990s, Alan Fern, then the Portrait Gallery’s director, decided to commission portraits of presidents to capture unique likenesses for the collection. Since then, near the end of a president’s term, the Portrait Gallery has worked with the White House to commission an official portrait. Upon completion, the president’s portrait is displayed in America’s Presidents. A second official portrait of the president is made for the White House.

George Herbert Walker Bush (1994/1995) by Ronald Norman SherrSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The Portrait Gallery’s first commissioned presidential portrait–of George H. W. Bush by Ronald Sherr—was unveiled in 1995. Since then, the museum has commissioned portraits for every outgoing president, continuing with President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump.

George W. Bush (2008) by Robert A. AndersonSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

At the start of the commissioning process, it is customary for Portrait Gallery curators to present the president and first lady with a selection of artists for consideration. When President George W. Bush received the names of ten artists, he went off script and selected Connecticut portraitist Robert Anderson, with whom he attended Yale University. The president requested an informal image and posed in shirtsleeves at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.

PORTRAITS: Portraying Presidents

Learn more about the commissioning of this portrait with Portrait Gallery Director Kim Sajet and Curator Emeritus Carolyn Carr on an episode of the “Portraits” podcast.

Bill Clinton (2005) by Nelson ShanksSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Typically, a president will have two in-person sittings with the portraitist. During the first session, the artist creates reference images of the president while building rapport. They usually use the second sitting to make any necessary adjustments to the work. Due to scheduling conflicts, President Bill Clinton was unable to have a second sitting with artist Nelson Shanks.

To compensate, Shanks consulted with President Clinton’s staff before making finishing touches to the portrait, which included changing Clinton’s shoe color from brown to black and moving his tie to cover the shirt buttons. In addition, Curator Emeritus Carolyn Carr recalls that Shanks dressed a mannequin in a suit to reference while painting the president’s attire.

George Herbert Walker Bush (1994/1995) by Ronald Norman SherrSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

George H.W. Bush posed standing behind a chair for artist Ronald N. Sherr at the president’s summer residence in Kennebunkport, Maine. The four or five sittings of two to three hours each helped Sherr capture the president’s warmth and confidence. However, the portrait itself is set in the East Wing of the White House. By presenting Bush as over life-size and within an impressive space, Sherr also conveys a sense of grandeur and importance.

President Barack Obama (2018) by Kehinde WileySmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

President Barack Obama's portrait marks a departure from the more traditional representations of presidents. It aligns with the Obamas’ special interest in modern and contemporary American art, evident through their choice to display works by artists like Glenn Ligon and Ed Ruscha in the White House. 

Portrait Gallery Curator of Painting and Sculpture Taína Caragol, who stewarded this commission, finds that this portrait reimagines political power, breaking from traditional visual representations of influential individuals.

Artist Kehinde Wiley is known for his vibrant, large-scale paintings of African Americans posing as famous figures from the history of Western art. This portrait is not based on a specific work of art, although the flowers in the background carry special meaning for Obama.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (2006) by Ginny StanfordSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The Portrait Gallery began commissioning portraits of first ladies with this likeness of Hillary Rodham Clinton, which was unveiled in 2006. This commission was an important step toward recognizing the increasing significance of first ladies in U.S. history and culture. More recently, the Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States examined this important unofficial role through the lens of portraiture.

By portraying Clinton in profile, artist Ginny Stanford alludes to depictions of ancient Roman leaders. Yet because Clinton faced constant, intense public scrutiny, Stanford also wanted to afford the sitter a measure of privacy by selecting a pose that conceals as much as it reveals. Stanford also portrayed Clinton in yellow, then her favorite color.

Laura Bush (2008) by Aleksander TitovetsSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In this 2008 portrait of Laura Bush, Siberian-born, Texas-based artist Aleksander Titovets depicts the first lady reading in the White House, likely in recognition of the first lady’s career as a school librarian and continued support of literacy through the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries and other endeavors, such as the Laura W. Bush Library and Women’s Resource Center at the American University in Afghanistan (AUF), a university that she has supported since 2003.  Titovets had “two or three” sittings with Bush, which he refers to as "conversations". 

In this interview, Bush’s former Chief of Staff, Anita McBride, and former Senior Historian and curator of Every Eye is Upon Me: First Ladies ofthe United States, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw discuss the details of the first lady’s portrait.

First Lady Michelle Obama (2018) by Amy SheraldSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In 2018, the Portrait Gallery unveiled the portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama. She selected artist Amy Sherald to create this work. Sherald depicts Obama in her signature style, which uses gray for skin color as “a meditation on photography.” In this way, she alludes to the historical black-and-white photographs that preserved likenesses of African Americans, who have largely been excluded from large-scale, formal portraiture traditions.

Listen as artist Amy Sherald shares her vision at the unveiling of the Obama portraits.  

America's Presidents (2018) by Mark Gulezian/NPGSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

With the Obama Portraits unveiled and now touring the United States, the Portrait Gallery turns to its next commission: portraits of President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump. In the meantime, as is customary in the interim before a commissioned portrait is completed, a temporary portrait of Trump hangs in America’s Presidents.

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