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 twist: He stands expressionless against a white background and she sits on a sofa in the Red Room, wearing a formal light blue dress.
“Barack and Michelle, welcome home,” President Joe Biden said before inviting Obama on stage to unveil the portraits. Some in the audience gasped, 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 Barack Obama chose to paint his portrait says the “stripped down” style of his work helps create an “encounter” between the person in the painting and the viewer.
Robert McCurdy likes to portray his subjects without facial expression and standing against a white background, so America’s 44th and first black president will be seen here for generations to come, in a black suit and gray tie.
Biden and First Lady Jill Biden invited Obama and the former first lady back to their former home to unveil their official portraits. It was Mrs. 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 health care law he signed.
The former first lady chose an artist Sharon Spring for her portrait.
The portraits are dissimilar in style and content to others in the collection to which they will be added.
McCurdy told the White House Historical Association on the latest edition of its “1600 Sessions” podcast that his style is “abbreviated for a reason.” He has also done portraits of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and the Dalai Lama, among others.
“They have a plain white background, nobody’s gesturing, nobody — there’s no props because we’re not here to tell the story of the person sitting for them,” McCurdy said. “We are here to create an encounter between the viewer and the viewer.”
He compared the technique to a session with a psychiatrist, in which the patient and the doctor tell each other as little as possible “so you can project onto them.”
“And we do the same with these paintings,” McCurdy said. “We tell as little as possible about the babysitter so that the viewer can project onto them.”
McCurdy works from a photograph of his subjects, selected from hundreds of images. He spends a year to 18 months on each portrait and says he knows he’s done “when it stops annoying me.”
Sprung, who was also interviewed for the podcast, described feeling like she was in a “comedy sketch” when she met the Obamas in the Oval Office.
She continued to sink into the couch she was sitting on as the two of them sat on sturdier chairs. The president then “threw out” the printed conversation topics she had distributed to everyone in the room. After that, she just “shut up” and had to “take a breath” when someone else at the meeting asked her why she was drawing. Then she started crying.
“So who knows what overcame the interview, but it did,” Sprung said.
She planned to have Mrs. Obama standing in the portrait “to give it some dignity,” but said the former first lady “has so much dignity that I decided to do it sitting down, just because … it was too much to look at up her. I am so much shorter than her.”
Spring worked on the portrait for eight months, day and night, the most time she had ever devoted to one painting. She works entirely from photographs taken at various locations on the state floor of the White House. Getting the dress just right was the hardest part, she said.
“The color was so beautiful, and I really wanted to get the power of color and light,” said Sprung, who has done portraits of the late Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii, and Jeanette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress.
Recent tradition, regardless of political affiliation, has had the sitting president graciously host his immediate predecessor for the inauguration — as Bill Clinton did for George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush did for Clinton, and Obama did for the younger Bush.
Donald Trump who criticized almost everything about obama and diverted out of many presidential traditions, did not hold a ceremony for Obama. So Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, scheduled one for his former boss.
The portrait of Obama is intended to be displayed in the Great Foyer of the White House, the traditional showcase for paintings of the last two presidents. Currently, portraits of Clinton and George W. Bush hang there.
Mrs Obama’s portrait is likely to be placed alongside her predecessors in the ground floor corridor of the White House, joining Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush.
Both McCurdy and Sprung said it was difficult to keep their work on the portraits a secret. McCurdy said it wouldn’t have been a problem “if it hadn’t gone on for so long.” Sprung said she has to turn the portrait on the wall every time someone walks into her New York studio.
The White House Historical Association, a nonprofit that is funded through private donations and book sales and an annual Christmas decoration, helps manage the portrait process and, since the 1960s, has paid for most of those in the collection.
Congress bought the first painting in George Washington’s collection. Other portraits of early presidents and first ladies often came to the White House as gifts.
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