Iconic Image of Obama Heads to Portrait Gallery

Posted January 14, 2009 at 5:14pm

The iconic portrait of President-elect Barack Obama that appeared on T-shirts and buttons during his campaign will be on display Saturday at the National Portrait Gallery.

Los Angeles artist Shepard Fairey created the mixed-medium stenciled collage, which depicts Obama stoically gazing upward, the frame equally bathed in blue and red.

The National Portrait Gallery acquired the piece as a gift from Washington, D.C., art collectors Heather and Tony Podesta. It is now a part of the gallery’s permanent collection, and it will be prominently displayed on the first floor so that it is one of the first things museum patrons see when they enter.

Carolyn Carr, deputy director and chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery, referred to the piece as “an extraordinary object and an image that has been distributed throughout popular culture.”

Carr noted how Fairey “open sourced” the image by putting it on his Web site and making it available to download, which helped to widely disseminate the image. She compared it to the famous picture of Abraham Lincoln at Cooper Union that solidified a particular visual representation of Lincoln in the public consciousness.

“I think that people will instantly recognize it,” Carr said. “It’s the sense of familiarity and the sense of ‘that’s the Obama I know’ because [this image] is ubiquitous in our culture.”

Carr described Fairey’s piece as a “campaign image” distinct from the official, more traditional posed oil paintings on display in the museum’s Hall of Presidents. In this sense, she said it meets with the museum’s “broader presentation” of different mediums and methods of portraiture.

For a variety of reasons including the Obama portrait’s presence and the gallery’s central location near the confluence of several Metro lines, Carr predicted “extraordinary attendance” during the upcoming inauguration.