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The Obamas return to the White House for the unveiling of their portraits

Former President Barack Obama kisses his wife former first lady Michelle Obama after they unveiled their official White House portraits during a ceremony for the unveiling in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday in Washington.
Andrew Harnik
Former President Barack Obama kisses his wife former first lady Michelle Obama after they unveiled their official White House portraits during a ceremony for the unveiling in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday in Washington.

Updated September 7, 2022 at 2:55 PM ET

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama headed to the White House Wednesday for the unveiling of the couple's official portraits.

It marked the first time in 10 years that a sitting president has invited former leadership back for a revealing of the portraits — a tradition that stalled when an unveiling did not take place during the Trump years.

Tapped for the assignment of a lifetime were artists Robert McCurdy, for the president, and Sharon Sprung, for the first lady.

"These portraits have a special significance," Barack Obama said, adding that "it was important to find the right people to paint them."

Obama thanked Sprung for capturing Michelle Obama, "Her grace, her intelligence – and the fact that's she's fine," Obama said, as the former first lady rolled her eyes, later thanking him for his "spicy remarks." Obama said McCurdy captured all his flaws — his gray hair, his large ears — and quipped that he had talked him out of wearing a tan suit for the image.

"His work is so precise that at first glance it feels like a photograph," Obama said, explaining that the style helps viewers connect with the subject, and get an "honest sense" of who he is.

"When future generations walk these halls and look up at these portraits, I hope they get a better honest sense of who Michelle and I were. And I hope they leave with a deeper understanding that if we could make it here, maybe they can, too. They can do remarkable things, too," he said.

The former first lady spoke about how the tradition of unveiling the portraits matters as part of the peaceful transition of power in America — and as a representation of the American dream.

"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," she said.

The president of the White House Historical Association described the paintings as nontraditional and unconventional

In a video with the Obama Foundation, Sprung and McCurdy discuss the approach they took to painting the couple.

"I wanted people to pass by the painting and recognize her, or be more curious about her, or to read more about her, but to get her," Sprung said.

The former first lady is painted wearing a formal blue dress and is seated on a sofa in the Red Room. The process, Sprung said, took 18 months.

In former President Obama's painting, he's standing in the center of the canvas, dressed in a black suit with a gray tie.

"The subject ultimately for me was the idea of the gaze — two people looking directly at each other with nothing else to load the narrative," McCurdy said. "The painting is not telling the story of Barack Obama. It's telling the story of the relationship of the viewer with this particular person. And that's a two-way street."

Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, described the two paintings as nontraditional, unconventional and different.

"To some people they will be a surprise and different because they are nontraditional. To others, they will be very affirming," McLaurin said.

The artist, he noted, depicted only the former president. There is no background.

"He is the centerpiece," McLaurin said. "The portrait of Mrs. Obama is a little bit different than that. It is a very colorful portrait. It highlights her sense of fashion and style. It is depicted in furniture that is easily recognizable from the White House collection. And so there's a fitting or a nod to a more traditional feel, but in ... a style of painting that I think is also very suitable to her interest and her personality."

A look at the artists, Robert McCurdy and Sharon Sprung

McCurdy has a broad portfolio, having done portraits of the Dalai Lama, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nelson Mandela and Warren Buffett. He is best known for oil paintings that look nearly like photographs.

McCurdy said it usually takes him over a year to paint a portrait, and they start with many different actual photos.

"This is the speech that everybody gets when they sit for me: So to look directly into the lens. To not smile. Not gesture. And just hold into that moment, again where we're trying to extend time rather than slice it like a photograph. We're not looking for a gestural moment. We're looking for a more meditative or transcendent moment. So that's what we do," McCurdy told the White House Historical Association. "The setup is quite elaborate."

Sprung, who began working as an artist at the age of 19, got started by reaching out to and eventually working with Aaron Shikler, who did the portraits of former first ladies Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan as well as and former President John Kennedy.

"As that time passed and I got better, people would ask me to do their portrait rather than buy a painting of a different subject," Sprung said. "That was a great way to start, because then I knew that people wanted what I did, not what I could do."

Sprung is currently working on portraits of Patsy Mink, the first woman of color and Asian American woman elected to Congress. Previously she did a portrait of Jeannette Rankin, another former representative.

The White House Historical Association has organized the presidential portraits since the 1960s, and has since made it a goal to acquire portraits of all presidents and first ladies. These portraits of the Obamas, unlike those commissioned for the National Portrait Gallery and unveiled in 2018, will hang in the White House. According to the association, presidents and first ladies often select their artists before leaving the White House. But the process for completing the paintings can take years.

When was the last White House portrait unveiling?

In 2012, Obama invited George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bushto the White House for their unveilings. That event has gone down in history as a comedic affair, with Obama quipping that Bush left him a "really good TV sports package" and Bush dropping jokes about his painting. Bush noted that when the British burned the White House in 1814, Dolley Madison famously saved a portrait "of the first George W."

"Now Michelle, if anything happens," Bush said, gesturing to his portrait, "there's your man."

Although McLaurin said the Obama portraits have been done for some undisclosed period of time, there is no specific protocol or instruction for the timing for the unveiling.

"Perhaps the most classic example was the Kennedy portraits [which] were not revealed until the Nixon presidency, and even so they were done so quietly," said McLaurin.

Before Obama and Bush,Bush hosted the Clintons in 2004 and the Clintons hosted George H.W. and Barbara Bush in 1995, which has led some to believe the tradition was skipped during the Trump administration.

Representatives for Obama and Trump did not respond to requests for comment.

The Trumps, however, have begun conversations with the White House Historical Association regarding their own portraits and an artist have been identified, according to McLaurin, though he is unsure where they are in the process of creating the portraits.

"That takes time. But it will happen eventually, just like they all do," said McLaurin. "And at some point in time, they will be added to the White House collection."

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Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.