WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle returned to the White House on Wednesday for the unveiling of official portraits with a modern vibe: him standing expressionless against a white background and her seated on a sofa in the Red Room wearing a formal light blue dress.
“Barack and Michelle, welcome home,” President Joe Biden said before he invited the Obamas to the stage to unveil the portraits. Some people gasped while others applauded.
“It’s great to be back,” Obama said when it was his turn to speak. He praised Biden — his vice president — as someone who became a “true partner and a true friend.”
The artist whom Barack Obama selected to paint his portrait says the “stripped down” style of his works helps create an “encounter” between the person in the painting and the person looking at it.
Robert McCurdy likes to present his subjects without any facial expression and standing against a white background, which is how America’s 44th and first Black president will be seen here for posterity, in a black suit and gray tie.
Biden and Jill Biden, the first lady of Biden, invited Obama and Jill Biden back to their home in order to reveal their official portraits. It was Mrs. Obama’s first visit since her husband’s presidency ended in January 2017. Obama visited April himself to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his major health-care law.
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Sharon Sprung was Sharon’s choice for Sharon Sprung’s portrait.
They are different from other portraits in the collection in style and substance.
McCurdy told the White House Historical Association for the latest edition of its “1600 Sessions” podcast that his style is “stripped down for a reason.” He’s also done portraits of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and the Dalai Lama, among others.
“They have plain white backgrounds, nobody gestures, nobody — there are no props because we’re not here to tell the story of the person that’s sitting for them,” McCurdy said. “We’re here to create an encounter between the viewer and the sitter.”
He compared the technique to a session with a psychiatrist in which the patient and doctor tell each other as little as possible about themselves “so that you can project onto them.”
“And we’re doing the same thing with these paintings,” McCurdy said. “We’re telling as little about the sitter as possible so that the viewer can project onto them.”
McCurdy uses a photograph taken by his subject, chosen from hundreds. He spends a year to 18 months on each portrait and said he knows he’s done “when it stops irritating me.”
Sprung, who also was interviewed for the podcast, described feeling as though she was in a “comedy sketch” when she met with the Obamas in the Oval Office.
As they sat in sturdier chairs, she kept sinking onto the couch. Then the president “flicked” away the printed talking points she had handed out to everyone in the room. Then she just “went still” and had to “gasp for air a little bit” when someone else in the meeting asked her why she paints. After that, she began to cry.
“So who knows what put the interview over the top, but that’s how it went,” Sprung said.
She had planned on having Mrs. Obama stand in the portrait, “to give it a certain dignity,” but said the former first lady “has so much dignity that I decided to do it sitting just because … it was too much looking up at her. I’m that much shorter than her.”
Sprung worked on the portrait for eight months, day and night, the most time she’s ever spent on a single painting. The only source of her inspiration was photographs from various places on the State Floor. She said that the most difficult part was getting the gown just right.
“The color was so beautiful and I really wanted to get the strength of the color and the light,” said Sprung, who has done portraits of the late Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana, who was the first woman to be elected to Congress, and Patsy Minik, D. Hawaii.
Recent tradition, no matter political affiliation, has had the current president genially hosting his immediate predecessor for the unveiling — as Bill Clinton did for George H.W. Bush hosted Clinton’s unveiling, George W. Bush for Clinton, and Obama for Obama.
Donald Trump was a critic of almost every aspect Obama’s presidency and deviated greatly from traditional presidential ceremonies. He did not hold a ceremony for Obama. So Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, scheduled one for his former boss.
Obama’s portrait is destined for display in the Grand Foyer of the White House, the traditional showcase for paintings of the two most recent presidents. Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s portraits currently hang there.
Mrs. Obama’s portrait likely will be placed with her predecessors along the hallway on the Ground Floor of the White House, joining Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush.
McCurdy as well as Sprung acknowledged that it was challenging to keep their portraits under wraps. McCurdy said it wouldn’t have been a problem “if it had not gone on for so long.” Sprung said she had to turn the portrait to the wall whenever someone came into her studio in New York.
The White House Historical Association (a non-profit organisation that receives funds from sales of books and private donations) manages portraits and has funded most of them since the 1960s.
Congress purchased the George Washington painting that was the original in the collection. As gifts, the White House often received portraits of first wives and presidents in their early years.
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