Barack and Michelle Obama unveil new White House portraits

The Obamas’ portraits are unlike any others in the White House collection in terms of style and substance.

Barack Obama and his wife Michelle have returned to the White House for the unveiling of their official portraits, more than five years after the former United States president left office.

“Barack and Michelle, welcome home,” President Joe Biden said on Wednesday before he invited the Obamas to the stage to unveil the portraits, drawing applause and some gasps from the crowd gathered for the event.

Artist Robert McCurdy put the grey-suited ex-president at the centre of his canvas, in a photorealistic portrait with a white background that recalls previous portraits he did of Toni Morrison and Nelson Mandela.

The former first lady is pictured in a blue dress in the White House’s Red Room, in a painting by Brooklyn artist Sharon Sprung.

“It’s great to be back,” Obama said when it was his turn to speak, praising Biden — who served as his vice president — as someone who became a “true partner and a true friend”.

“When future generations walk these halls and look up at these portraits, I hope they get an honest sense of who Michelle and I were,” Obama said. “I hope they leave with a deeper understanding that if we could make it here, maybe they can, too.”

Customarily, a former president returns for the unveiling during his successor’s tenure, but Republican President Donald Trump‘s administration did not hold a ceremony for the Obamas.

Trump, before winning the 2016 election and succeeding Obama, was a longtime proponent of the “birther” movement that falsely suggested Obama was not born in the United States and should not be president.

Biden and first lady Jill Biden invited the Obamas back to their former home. It was Michelle Obama’s first visit since her husband’s presidency ended in January 2017. Obama himself visited in April to help celebrate the anniversary of the major healthcare law he signed.

The portraits of the Obamas do not look like any others in the collection to which they will be added, in terms of style and substance.

McCurdy, the artist whom Obama selected to paint his portrait, said the “stripped down” style of his work helps create an “encounter” between the person in the painting and the person looking at it.

McCurdy also likes to present his subjects without any facial expression and standing against a white background, which is how the former president’s portrait was painted.

Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama during the unveiling ceremony [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

“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 told the White House Historical Association for the latest edition of its “1600 Sessions” podcast.

“We’re here to create an encounter between the viewer and the sitter.”

McCurdy works from a photograph of his subjects, selected from hundreds of images. He spends a year to 18 months on each portrait and said he knows he is done “when it stops irritating me”.

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. Portraits of Bill Clinton and George W Bush currently hang there.

Meanwhile, Michelle 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.

Both McCurdy and Sprung said it was hard to keep their work on the portraits secret: McCurdy said it would not have been a problem “if it had not gone on for so long”, while Sprung said she had to turn the portrait to the wall whenever someone came into her studio in New York.

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