AMERICA’S National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC has unveiled portraits of former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama, both painted by African-American artists who were personally chosen by the Obamas.

The couple made a rare public appearance to attend the unveiling of the portraits overnight at the gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian group of museums.

Speaking at the event, Mr Obama said that working with artist Kehinde Wiley was “a great joy,” but jokingly added the artist refused some of his requests.

“I tried to negotiate less grey hair [but] Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow [him] to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well.”

The former first lady was painted by Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, who Mr Obama personally thanked during his speech.

“Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love,” former President Obama said.

Mrs Obama said she was “a little overwhelmed, to say the least,” after her portrait was unveiled, adding that she was aware of the impact her portrait would have on “girls and girls of colour.”

“They will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution ... And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls,” she said.

The gallery has a complete collection of presidential portraits.

A second and different set of portraits of the former first couple will eventually hang in the White House.

Wiley, who painted Mr Obama’s portrait, is an artist best known for his vibrant, large-scale paintings of African-Americans.

Sherald, whom the gallery commissioned to paint Mrs Obama, is a Baltimore-based artist and first prize winner of the Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.

Dozens of friends and supporters, including Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, and Gayle King gathered in the atrium of the gallery for the ceremony.

The portraits will be officially installed and available for public viewing starting February 13.