Last month, Barack and Michelle Obama participated in a presidential rite of passage when their official portraits were unveiled at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. But recently, the Smithsonian moved Michelle Obama's portrait to a different part of the museum to accommodate a "high volume of visitors." In other words, the former first lady's portrait is so popular that it needed to be relocated to a larger space.
"We're always changing things up here," the National Portrait Gallery tweeted earlier this month. "Due to the high volume of visitors, we've relocated Michelle Obama's portrait to the 3rd floor in our 20th-Century Americans galleries for a more spacious viewing experience."
According to CNN, 176,700 people visited the National Portrait Gallery in February, making it the gallery's biggest month in three years. CNN also reported that almost 45,000 people visited the gallery over the course of just four days last week.
The portrait's popularity is unsurprising; even Barack and Michelle Obama were emotional when they saw it for the first time. At last month's unveiling, Michelle Obama said that she was "a little overwhelmed" when she saw the portrait.
I'm also thinking about all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place, and 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. I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls. And when I think about those future generations and generations past, I think, again, wow. Wow.
Barack Obama was also moved by his wife's portrait, and thanked artist Amy Sherald for "so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love."
Sherald is an artist from Baltimore who often addresses social justice in her work. She is known for painting life-size portraits of African Americans — and she often paints in grayscale, something that prompted many questions following the unveiling of Michelle Obama's portrait. During a talk at Johns Hopkins University late last year, Sherald explained that her use of gray tones was intentional.
“Gray makes the paintings work," Sherald said. "But it’s also a way for me to subversively comment about race without feeling as though I’m excluding the viewer.”
The Obamas were evidently thinking about representation when they selected the artists who would paint their official portraits. According to Vox, Kehinde Wiley — who painted the former president's official portrait — and Sherald were the first black painters to receive a presidential portrait commission from the Smithsonian.
The National Portrait Gallery has only been open to the public for about 50 years, but the unveiling of the Obamas' portraits — and their subsequent popularity — marked a shift from the sense of ceremonial routine that past unveilings have created.
And, as Michelle Obama had hoped, her portrait attracted the attention of young girls of color who had never seen themselves represented in this particular way. Earlier this month, two-year-old Parker Curry went viral after museum visitor Ben Hines posted a photo of her staring, awestruck, at the former first lady's portrait. Michelle Obama reached out to Parker and her family, and invited them to Washington for what eventually became a dance party.
"Parker was in front on the portrait, and I really wanted her to turn around so I could get a picture with her, and she genuinely, honestly, would not turn around," her mother, Jessica Curry, told CNN earlier this month. "As a female and as a girl of color, It's really important that I show her people who look like her that are doing amazing things and are making history so that she knows she can do it."
Michelle Obama echoed this sentiment when she posted about her encounter with Parker on social media; the former first lady suggested to the two-year-old that "maybe one day I'll proudly look up at a portrait of you!"