After Trump’s rejection, Obama finally reveals official White House portraits

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Former US President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, returned to the White House on Wednesday, unveiling official portraits with a modern twist in an event that juxtaposed the humor and nostalgia of his presidency against the current tough political talk about the survival of democracy.

While her husband made a few jokes about his gray hair, big ears and clothes in his portrait, Michelle Obama, a descendant of slaves, said the occasion for her was more about the promise of America for people like herself.

“Barack and Michelle, welcome home,” President Joe Biden declared as the crowd cheered.

Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, praised his former boss’s leadership on health care, the economy and immigration, saying nothing could have prepared him better to be president than serving with Obama for those eight years.

“It was always about doing what was right,” Biden said.

Former US President Barack Obama laughs as he attends the unveiling ceremony for the official portraits of himself and his wife at the White House on Wednesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The portrait of Barack Obama, the 44th and first black president of the United States, does not resemble the portraits of any of his predecessors, nor does Michelle Obama’s resemble any of the women who filled the role before her.

Barack Obama stands expressionless against a white background, wearing a black suit and gray tie in the portrait by Robert McCurdy, which looks more like a large photograph than an oil-on-canvas portrait. Michelle Obama, lips pursed, sits on a couch in the Red Room in a strapless light blue dress. She chose artist Sharon Sprung for her portrait.

Dozens of former members of the Obama administration were on hand for the grand unveiling.

Obama noted that some of those gathered in the East Room audience had started families in the intervening years, and he feigned disappointment “that I haven’t heard of anyone naming a child Barack or Michelle.”

Barack Obama stands expressionless against a white background, wearing a black suit and gray tie in the portrait by Robert McCurdy, which looks more like a large photograph than an oil-on-canvas portrait. Michelle Obama, lips pursed, sits on a couch in the Red Room in a strapless light blue dress. She chose artist Sharon Sprung for her portrait. (White House Historical Association/Getty Images)

He thanked McCurdy for his work and joked that the artist, known for his paintings of public figures from Nelson Mandela to the Dalai Lama, had ignored his pleas for fewer gray hairs and smaller ears.

“By the way, he also talked me out of wearing a tan suit,” Obama joked, referring to a widely panned appearance he made as president in an unflattering suit.

He went on to say that his wife was the “best thing about living in the White House,” and thanked Sprung for “capturing everything I love about Michelle, her grace, her intelligence — and the fact that she has that’s good.”

Michelle Obama hugs Jill Biden, wife of US President Joe Biden, as Barack Obama looks on during the unveiling ceremony. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

When it was her turn to speak, Michelle Obama opened with a laugh saying she had to thank her husband for “such spicy remarks”. To which he replied, “I’m not running again.”

Then she got serious, drawing a connection between the unveiling of the portraits and America’s promise to people from backgrounds like her own, a daughter of working-class parents from the South Side of Chicago.

“For me, this day is not just about what happened,” she said. “It’s also about what could happen, for a girl like me, she should never be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolley Madison. She shouldn’t live in this house and she shouldn’t serve as first lady. “

Michelle Obama said the unveiling of the portraits was a “reminder that there is room for everyone in this country.”

The Obamas and Bidens arrive for the unveiling ceremony on Wednesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

According to tradition, the sitting president invites his immediate predecessor back to the White House to unveil his portrait, but Donald Trump broke with that custom and did not host Obama. So Biden planned a ceremony for his former boss.

Michelle Obama said the tradition means something “not only to those of us who hold these positions, but to everyone who participates in and watches over our democracy.”

In remarks that never mentioned Trump but made a point as he continues to challenge his 2020 election loss, she said: “You see the people, they are making their voice heard with their voice, we are holding an inauguration to ensure a peaceful transition of power … and when our time is up, we move on.”

Portrait artist in his ‘stripped’ style

McCurdy, meanwhile, said his “stripped down” portraiture style helps create an “encounter” between the person in the painting and the person looking at it.

“They have a plain white background, no gestures, no — there are no props because we’re not here to tell the story of the person sitting for them,” McCurdy told the White House Historical Association during an interview with it. 1600 sessions podcast.

“We are here to create an encounter between the viewer and the sitter,” he said. “We tell as little about the sitter as possible so the viewer can project onto them.”

He works from a photograph of his subject, selected from hundreds of images, and spends at least a year on each portrait. He said he knows he’s done “when it stops annoying me.”

No word yet on Trump portraits

Barack Obama’s portrait is set to be displayed in the Grand Foyer of the White House, the traditional showcase for paintings by the past two presidents. Portraits of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush currently hang there.

Michelle Obama’s portrait will likely be placed alongside those of her predecessors along the White House ground floor hallway, along with Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush.

Two Trump spokesmen did not respond to emailed requests for comment on whether artists have begun work on White House portraits of Trump and his wife, Melania. However, work is underway on a separate pair of Trump portraits headed for the collection held by the National Portrait Gallery, a Smithsonian museum.

The White House Historical Association, a nonprofit organization founded in 1961 by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and funded through private donations and book sales and an annual Christmas decoration, helps manage the White House portrait process. Since the 1960s, the association has paid for most of the portraits in the collection.

Congress bought the first painting in the collection of George Washington. Other portraits of early presidents and first ladies often came to the White House as gifts.

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