President Obama’s image was painted by Robert McCurdy and Michelle Obama’s portrait was painted by Sharon Sprung.
McCurdy told the White House Historical Association in an interview that his process focused on working from a photograph of the former president. The photorealistic image of the former president, dressed in a black suit with a gray tie, is painted on a minimal white background – a signature of McCurdy’s artwork. McCurdy said his paintings took at least a year to complete.
The former first lady’s portrait was painted by Sprung, who describes her work as “contemporary realism”. The image depicts Michelle Obama in a blue dress sitting on a couch in the Red Room of the White House. The work was painted from photographs taken at different locations on the State Floor of the White House.
President Joe Biden used Wednesday’s ceremony to reflect on the Obamas’ accomplishments in the White House.
“Together,” Biden said, the former first couple “made history.”
“You both generated hope for millions of people who have been left behind for so long – and that’s important. You both did it with such grace and class. You dreamed of great lasting victories for the American people, helping to ease their burden with a blessing of hope,” he continued. “It’s so underrated… just to have hope. This is the Obama presidency’s gift to the country and to history.”
Wednesday’s ceremony in the East Room marked a rare celebratory occasion between two presidential administrations at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden convened a who’s who of past and present administration officials — from unique perspective to have served both.
It was in the same room that Obama presented Biden with a surprise Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2017, a tearful ceremony that reflected the two men’s deep respect for each other. Although the two enjoy playing their relationship in public, there are limits to their friendship, officials said.
Stewart McLaurin, the president of the WHHA, told CNN that the Covid-19 pandemic played a role in the timing of the unveiling. The WHHA, a non-profit organization, facilitates and funds the creation of the portraits.
“Covid hit us two and a half years ago, and I think it’s important that these (portraits) be revealed at a time when the public has access to the White House and they can be seen,” said said McLaurin. .
While there is no hard and fast rule as to when a White House portrait should be unveiled, ceremonies have often been hosted by a former president’s immediate successor. And when he was in office, President Donald Trump never held a ceremony for Obama’s portraits.
The Obamas through the eyes of artists
Details about the pieces unveiled on Wednesday were a closely guarded secret, with the artists and art movers signing confidentiality agreements to keep things under wraps ahead of the big day.
But the Obamas have often used art as a tool to express their tastes, so it’s no surprise that their White House portraits do the same.
McCurdy’s depiction of the former president is minimalist, eschewing conventional props typically associated with a presidential portrait, such as a desk or bookcase, for an entirely blank backdrop.
Sprung’s rendition shows the former first lady appearing to take a brief moment to get comfortable in one of the most formal rooms in the White House. Unlike the portraits of her predecessors, Michelle Obama wears a strapless dress in her portrait – perhaps a marker of the country’s changing style.
In her portrait, the former first lady wears a custom dress from the Jason Wu collection, a person familiar with the details told CNN. Wu is a go-to designer for Obama, and he designed his two inaugural dresses. Wu’s choice by Obama at the time essentially launched her career as a globally recognized fashion designer.
“There’s going to be some evolution in these portraits over time…and I think that’s actually going to be exciting,” McLaurin said in a preview of Obama’s upcoming portraits. “I think it’s going to be a bit of a magical moment. I think it’s going to be an evolution of art.”
He continued, “We’re now heading into the first third of the 21st century. And I think in the minds of most Americans, we see presidential portraits as these very traditional 19th century portraits. But the art and the taste of art evolve and change.”
While living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Obamas chose to showcase several contemporary and modern artists.
Amy Sherald, who painted the Smithsonian portrait of the first lady, defies convention on race by depicting her characters’ skin in shades of gray. Kehinde Wiley, who painted the former president, reinvents old master paintings with black subjects.
Traditionally, the last two sets of presidential portraits are placed in the Cross Hall of the White House – although Trump chose to move the portraits of Bush and Clinton to the Old Family Dining Room – which was essentially used as a storage room during his White House – after a quarrel with the two families.
Biden has moved Bush portraits and Clinton portraits to Cross Hall, but with a new portrait of Obama, Clinton may have to be moved soon.
Wednesday ceremony at the White House
The Obamas’ return to the White House marked a rare moment for current and past administrations to converge and revisit a presidential legacy.
Unlike the 2012 unveiling, Wednesday’s event mostly hosted attendees from the same party — some attendees with ties to both administrations.
The Obamas were joined by family, friends, former Cabinet members and senior administration officials at the unveiling.
Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama’s mother who lived in the White House residence during their presidency, attended the ceremony.
Other expected attendees included former Obama chief of staff (and current US ambassador to Japan) Rahm Emanuel, former senior adviser David Axelrod, former Treasury secretaries Jack Lew and Timothy Geithner, former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, former Attorney General Eric Holder. , former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former Director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget Shaun Donovan and former White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Biden and Obama forged a close relationship when they served together, but their friendship has its limits. Although they speak occasionally, they are not in daily or weekly contact, people familiar with the matter said.
After two terms in the shadow of Obama, Biden has, at times, differentiated himself from his predecessor. Officials said there was also some competition between the two men.
Their story, though one of a partnership, has also been colored by various slights, real or perceived, that still linger.
Obama declined to endorse Biden over other Democrats in the 2020 primary, a step both men said was necessary to allow for real competition within the party. Four years earlier, Obama had considered Hillary Clinton as his Democratic successor instead of Biden, who had decided not to run as he grappled with the death of his son.
Trump portraits are next
The White House Historical Association is in the “early stages” of the processes of portraying former President Trump and former first lady Melania Trump, McLaurin said.
“The focus is on specific artists who are likely to do their portraits,” McLaurin added.
A source familiar with the situation told CNN that discussions about the portraits began over the past six months at Mar-a-Lago — Trump’s Florida residence — and that the former president recently sat down to pictures. However, it’s unclear whether Trump posed for the White House portrait painter or for photographs specifically for the portraits.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to say whether Biden would extend an invitation to Trump if his portrayal was completed during the Biden administration.
The Trump Political Action Committee donated $650,000 to the Smithsonian Institution in July to help underwrite the Trumps’ portraits, according to Linda St. Thomas, chief spokeswoman for the Smithsonian.
The Trump Save America PAC leadership donation marks the first time funds have come from a political action committee since the institution began raising private funds for presidential portraits — a practice that began with the portraits associated with former President George HW Bush, St. Said Thomas.
St. Thomas said another private donation of $100,000 also helps defray costs associated with the portraits. The funds, totaling $750,000, will go towards artist fees, shipping, framing, installation and events.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify where President Donald Trump had portraits of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton moved during his time in the White House.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Kate Bennett, Fredreka Schouten, Gabby Orr, Betsy Klein and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.