Artist Behind Obamas' Portraits Under Scrutiny for Violent Images

The artist who painted former President Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait is facing scrutiny for past works that depict violent images.

New York City-based artist Kehinde Wiley, who became the first black American to ever paint a presidential portrait when Obama asked him to paint his portrait, is coming under fire after two of his past paintings began circulating online, The Washington Times reports.

The two paintings, both titled “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” which were unveiled in 2012, depict Judith, a black woman, decapitating the Assyrian general Holofernes, who Kehinde depicts as a white woman, from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith.

“Judith and Holofernes is from Wiley’s most recent body of work and his first series of paintings to feature female subjects,” a 2012 explanation of the work from the North Carolina Museum of Art foundation reads, The Wrap reports. “Wiley translates this image of a courageous, powerful woman into a contemporary version that resonates with fury and righteousness.”

The boundary-pushing paintings are drawing scrutiny from some, who don’t believe the artist’s previous work makes it appropriate for him to paint the presidential portrait.

While the paintings are controversial, Kehinde has a long-running style of painting black subjects in poses based on classic imagery from Western art and iconography, typically putting his subjects in powerful positions.

On Monday, former President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama unveiled their official portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Michelle’s portrait was skillfully painted by artist Amy Sherald.

While the portraits drew praise and awe, they also earned their fair share of poking fun, with many people creating memes from the images. Meanwhile, some people took issue with Michelle’s portrait, which was met with confusion and criticism for the seemingly dissimilar appearance.

To combat critical perceptions of Michelle's portrait, CNN White House reporter Kate Bennett offered some details on Sherald's artistic style, which is reportedly why she was chosen to paint the former first lady.

"Sherald uses greyscale to paint skin tone in order to take away 'color,' so her subjects can be seen for their personality and presence," Bennett wrote on Twitter. "It’s not supposed to 'look like her' in the traditional sense of portraiture.”

Both portraits will hang in Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. alongside those of previous American leaders. The portraits will be available for public viewing starting Tuesday.