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Seeing the Obama portraits in person

The crowds in front of Barack Obama's portrait at the National Portrait Gallery

If you're an art lover, no visit to Washington, D.C. is now complete without a visit to see the utterly original Obama portraits, unveiled earlier this year at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

And if you're a fan of the Studio Museum in Harlem, uptown's museum dedicated to African-American artists, there's an added reason to go: both portraits were painted by its alumni.

Kehinde Wiley, who references formal portraits by Old Masters in his hyper-realistic paintings of African-American men, was not just an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum at the beginning of his career, but the subject of a solo show there in 2008. Amy Sherald, who made her name with gray-toned portraits of everyday African-Americans, was a featured artist in last year's "Fictions" show.

Kehinde Wiley's portrait of Barack Obama

At the National Portrait Gallery, Barack Obama's portrait can be found in the "America's Presidents" section on the second floor. You'll pass the likenesses of everyone from George Washington to George W. Bush, and then, finally, America's 44th president. Wiley's electric, larger-than-life painting of Obama stands alone in the middle of the gallery, and the selfie-obsessed crowd in front is reminiscent of the throngs that gather in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Obama's transformation from star to legend, it seems, is complete.

Amy Sherald's portrait of Michelle Obama

Up one flight of stairs, Michelle Obama's portrait hangs in the "Twentieth-Century Americans" gallery, where during a recent visit the crowds were slightly more manageable than the ones on the floor below; they also seemed to include more women. But selfies were no less popular. Although the painting of Michelle is almost as big as her husband's, the colors here are much softer and Sherald's message is subtler. Still, there is something both charming and uplifting about the artwork–kind of like the woman herself.

Go see both portraits soon–not just because they're new and noteworthy, but because you'll be reminded of the groundbreaking nature of Barack Obama's presidency. If you were moved when Obama and his wife were in the White House, you will likely feel the same all over again.

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