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A visit to the National Portrait Gallery

In Washington, crowds swarmed former President Barack Obama’s new portrait on Presidents Day weekend

A visit to the National Portrait Gallery

Visitors take pictures of the official portrait of former President Barack Obama at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

A D.C. moment:

The new official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama found a home in the National Portrait Gallery just in time for Presidents Day. The normally quiet gallery—a Smithsonian building visitors often neglect because it’s not situated along the National Mall—was swamped with crowds over the weekend to see the additions to the collection.

Michelle Obama’s portrait is hanging near the entrance to the museum, so it was easy to see, but Barack Obama’s is hanging in the wing containing the other presidential portraits. The line to see his portrait—and to take a picture—was an hour long.

Jose Luis Magana/AP

The official portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

A security guard advised a back way to see the painting, skipping the official line and walking through all the other presidential portraits first. That path allowed only a side view of the image, but a good view of the Instagramming throngs and the buffeted security guards trying to keep exits clear. My sister pointed out that this was the first presidential portrait unveiled in the social media age: Former President George W. Bush’s portrait made its debut at the Portrait Gallery in 2008, two years before Instagram entered the scene.

The transition from the other historical presidential portraits to the vibrant colors of Barack Obama’s portrait by African-American artist Kehinde Wiley was striking, and in person the portrait is arresting. My friend Elissa Weichbrodt, an art professor at Covenant College, shared an analysis of the painting, giving the context of Wiley’s other work and pointing out the African blue lilies and Chicago chrysanthemums in the portrait’s background. The painting will be a permanent part of the National Portrait Gallery collection.

Worth your time:  

An endearing Olympics story on the last-place finishers in cross-country skiing, all men who came from snow-free countries.

This week I learned:

The University of Notre Dame, which initially fought the contraceptive and abortifacient mandate in court, announced it will be covering contraceptives after all—going against traditional Catholic teaching, and drawing criticism from the local bishop in South Bend, Ind.

A court case you might not know about:

After a crazy police corruption case recently unfolded in Baltimore, a New York federal court is now considering a case about whether police officers used bogus arrests to boost overtime pay.

Culture I am consuming:

More Billy Wilder films: This time, I watched Seven Year Itch (1955). It’s not going on my top Wilder list, but one interesting historical detail is that the opening scene features New York’s old Penn Station, which was torn down in 1963. The current Penn Station, with its concrete bunker aura, would never be a scenic backdrop for a film.  

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