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The White House Finally Unveils Official Obama Portraits

The White House Finally Unveils Official Obama Portraits

There was no ceremony while former President Donald J. Trump was in office, breaking with convention. The Obama portraits—his by Robert McCurdy and hers by Sharon Sprung—were unveiled by President Biden.

official White House portraits unveiled by their successors in recent years. But while Donald J. Trump was president, such did not happen with regard to the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trump’s replacement, President Biden, officially unveiled the official portraits of the Obamas in the East Room of the White House.

At the ceremony, which brought many members of his administration back to the White House in what felt like a reunion, Mr. Obama said, “It is great to be back.”

The paintings were ordered by the White House Historical Association, and both their creators—Robert McCurdy, who painted the former president, and Sharon Sprung, who painted the former first lady—have kept their identities a well guarded secret.

Even though these artists might not be well-known, they are part of a long tradition of painting former first couples. All of the past presidents are shown somewhere on the walls of the White House, though the paintings move around to different rooms.

Mr. Obama praised the artists. “I want to thank Sharon Sprung for capturing everything I love about Michelle: her grace, her intelligence, and the fact that she’s fine,” he said, to cheers. “And I want to thank Robert McCurdy for taking on a much more difficult subject.”

At the official unveiling in the East Room, President Biden and his wife, Jill, showed how much they liked the Obamas. “Welcome home!” Mr. Biden told the Obama family in a warm greeting that he had been Mr. Obama’s vice president

Portraits are usually shown for the first time during the first term of the next president. In the case of Mr. Obama, it would have been Mr. Trump. But Mr. Trump wasn’t in charge of planning the event.

The fact that they broke with tradition showed how much they disliked each other. When Mr. Obama was president, he hosted former President George W. Bush to unveil his portrait in 2012.

It’s not clear if Mr. Biden will decide to throw a party for Mr. Trump when the painting is done. At a press briefing on Tuesday, Karine Jean-Pierre, who works for the White House, didn’t answer the question.

“We defer those questions to the White House Historical Association,” she said. “They lead the process on official portraits for both presidents and their spouses. So that question lies with them.”

The hatred between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump is deep and very public, and the two men could still run against each other in the 2024 elections. This makes it unlikely that they would agree to take part in a happy ceremony to put Mr. Trump’s portrait in its place in history.

People often confuse the official White House portraits with the ones commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and shown for the first time in 2018. Kehinde Wiley painted President Obama, and Amy Sherald painted Mrs. Obama. These paintings have been shown all over the country.

But the portraits in the White House are their own collection, and they tend to be more realistic oil paintings in the traditional style, like the new ones of the Obamas.

“It’s a new addition to White House history,” said Stewart McLaurin, the president of the White House Historical Association. “These portraits are now invited into this gallery.”

Each artist was selected by the Obamas.
Mr. McCurdy, who is 60 years old, is known for his portraits of famous people that look so real that they could almost be mistaken for photos.

After getting his bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art and an arts fellowship from Yale University, Mr. McCurdy went on to paint the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, and Toni Morrison, as well as Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Muhammad Ali.

Mr. McCurdy used his usual method to paint Mr. Obama, who he said was someone he had always wanted to paint. He took about 100 carefully lit photos of Mr. Obama and then worked from those to make his painting.

“This is the speech that everybody gets when they sit for me,” he said in an interview for a podcast with Mr. McLaurin, of the association. “To look directly into the lens. To not smile. Not gesture. And just hold into that moment.
“We’re trying to extend time rather than slice it like a photograph,” he went on. “We’re not looking for a gestural moment. We’re looking for a more meditative or transcendent moment.”
Mr. Obama said that Mr. McCurdy’s realistic approach had appealed to him.
“Presidents so often get airbrushed, they even take on a mythical status, especially after you’ve gone and people forget all the stuff they didn’t like about you,” he said. “But what you realize when you’re sitting behind that desk — and what I want people to remember about Michelle and me — is that presidents and first ladies are human beings like everyone else.”

Ms. Sprung, who is 69 years old and from Glen Cove, N.Y., went to school at the Art Students League, where she now teaches. She has painted portraits of everyone from members of Congress to headmasters to famous people from history.

Ms. Sprung told Mr. McLaurin about her first meeting with the Obamas in the Oval Office during her interview with him.

“I went to sit on this couch and I’m much shorter than either of the Obamas,” she said. “I just kept sinking into this couch thinking, Oh, this is not good, I hope they can see me.”

Ms. Sprung said she suggested that Mrs. Obama sit instead of stand, in part so that the former first lady could be at the artist’s eye level.“I was going to do her standing to give it a certain dignity,” Ms. Sprung said. “But she doesn’t need dignity. She has so much dignity that I decided to do it sitting.”
Mrs. Obama — who drew laughs when thanking her husband for delivering “such spicy remarks” — spoke of the symbolism of the moment.
“A girl like me, she was never supposed to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolley Madison,” she said. “She was never supposed to live in this house and she definitely wasn’t supposed to serve as first lady.”
“But what we’re looking at today — a portrait of a biracial kid with an unusual name and the daughter of a water pump operator and a stay-at-home mom — what we are seeing is a reminder that there’s a place for everyone in this country,” she said. “Because as Barack said, if the two of us can end up on the walls of the most famous address in the world, then again it is so important for every young kid who is doubting themselves to believe that they can, too. That is what this country is about.”

Usually, it wouldn’t be hard for the artists to keep their work secret. But this particular delay of six years was especially challenging. Mr. McCurdy told Mr. McLaurin, “That was definitely new.”

Mr. McLaurin said that it is unusual for White House portraits to have no props or other things in the background, which is what Mr. McCurdy’s picture of Obama has. Mr. McCurdy said that he did this on purpose and that he spends 12 to 18 months on each portrait.

“We’re here to create an encounter between the viewer and the sitter,” he told Mr. McLaurin. “The viewer will bring their emotional and historical package to that moment, and it will be different for every single one.”

According to Mrs. Obama, the day is less about her and Mr. Obama than it is about the paintings. “It’s about telling that fuller story,” she said. “A story that includes every single American.”

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