Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama returned to the White House for the unveiling of their official portraits, marking their first joint visit to the iconic building since they left in 2017 and the return of a Washington tradition last celebrated in 2012.
The ceremony to unveil their portraits was hosted by President Joe Biden and attended by First Lady Dr Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris among others.
Biden during the ceremony called Obama, 61, and Michelle, 58, very close to the hearts of the American people.
“Jill and I have been waiting to host events at the White House for a long time coming out of the pandemic, and it’s fitting, fitting that we can do that now by unveiling the portraits of two dear friends and two great Americans who are still held very tightly in the hearts of the American people, portraits that are going to hang in the walls of this sacred place, the people’s house, forever, and a reminder of all here and now for those to come to power that hope and change matters,” Biden said during the ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
Former President Obama has visited the White House since Biden took office, but Wednesday’s event marked Michelle’s first time back in the building since the Trumps arrived in January 2017.
The portraits were acquired and commissioned by the White House Historical Association, a tradition the association has undertaken since 1965.
And for the first time, the official names of the artists have been revealed: Robert McCurdy, who painted President Obama’s portrait, and Sharon Sprung, the artist behind Mrs Obama’s portrait.
Speaking on the occasion, Obama said that it is America’s good fortune to have Biden as the President.
“You have guided us through some perilous times. You’ve built on and gone beyond the work we all did together to expand health care, to fight climate change, to advance social justice, and to promote economic fairness,” he said amidst applause.
.@BarackObama: “I’ve always described the presidency as a relay race; you take the baton from someone, you run your leg as hard and as well as you can and then you hand it off to someone else, knowing that your work will be incomplete.” (cont…) pic.twitter.com/a0JdiXQjPm
— CSPAN (@cspan) September 7, 2022
Obama said their portraits have a special significance, because they will hang in the White House alongside portraits of other Presidents and first ladies dating back to George and Martha.
“So it was important to find the right people to paint them,” he said. “I want to thank Sharon Sprung for capturing everything I love about Michelle. Her grace, her intelligence, and the fact that she’s fine. Her portrait is stunning. And I want to thank Robert McCurdy for taking on a much more difficult subject and doing a fantastic job with mine,” Obama said, praising the painters.
He reminded the guests of the great painting works of Robert.
“Robert is known for his paintings of public figures: Toni Morrison, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali. But what I love about Robert’s work is that he paints people exactly the way they are. For better or worse. He captures every wrinkle on your face, every crease in your shirt,” he said.
I want to thank Robert McCurdy for his extraordinary work on my portrait. Robert is known for his paintings of public figures, and I love how he paints people exactly the way they are. Take a look at the process behind creating the official White House portraits: pic.twitter.com/oZb6ov4uwr
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) September 7, 2022
In the portrait, Obama, dressed in a black suit with a grey tie, stands prominently at the centre of the canvas.
The photorealistic portrait was painted entirely from photographs that were taken by the artist, Robert McCurdy, during a short photo session.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama wears a formal blue dress and is seated on a sofa in the Red Room.
Her portrait was also painted entirely from photographs that were taken by artist Sharon Sprung in various locations on the State Floor of the White House.
Sprung has taught at both the Art Students League of New York and the National Academy School for the past 30 years.
Her paintings and portraits have been exhibited since the late 1970s, including many one-person shows in New York City.
Through her work on the small details of her subjects, such as their eyes, nose, or lips, she gets to know her sitters.
The portraits, which will hang inside the White House for decades to come, are the first official portraits added to the White House Collection since then-President Obama held an unveiling ceremony for George W Bush and Laura Bush in 2012.
The Obamas’ return to the White House marked a rare moment for the current and past administrations to converge and look back on a presidential legacy in the same room where President Obama awarded then-Vice President Biden a surprise Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2017.