Obamas, Bidens reunite at White House for official portrait unveiling

The last presidential portrait unveiling took place 10 years ago.

September 7, 2022, 3:12 PM

Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama returned to the White House Wednesday, reuniting with now President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden to unveil their official portraits and introduce the artists behind them -- a closely-held secret in Washington after an unusually long wait for their reveal.

“When future generations walk these halls and look up at these portraits, I hope they get a better and 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,” former President Obama said Wednesday

For his portrait, the former president selected Robert McCurdy as the artist. McCurdy, an artist and photographer known for his hyperrealistic paintings of several well-known figures, including Toni Morrison, the Dalai Lama and Jeff Bezos, said Obama was already on his list of subjects he'd like to paint.

"When this project came up, it was just perfect because it saved us the trouble of having to ask him," McCurdy said in an episode of the White House Historical Association's "1600 Sessions" podcast.

PHOTO: Former President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden arrive for a ceremony to unveil the Obama's official White House portraits, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on Sept. 7, 2022.
Former President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden, followed by former First Lady Michelle Obama and First Lady Jill Biden, arrive for a ceremony to unveil the Obama's official White House portraits, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on Sept. 7, 2022.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The portrait unveiled Wednesday of a photo-realistic image of Obama in a black suit with a grey tie against a stark white background, was painted from photographs that McCurdy took of Obama. According to the artist, it typically takes 12-18 months to complete his work, and he works on only one project at a time.

The painting is also a sharp contrast to the 2018 portrait of Obama for the National Portrait Gallery painted by Kehinde Wiley, which featured Obama against a background of vibrant vines and flowers.

For her portrait, the former first lady selected Sharon Sprung to capture her image.

Like McCurdy, Sprung worked off photographs she took at the White House to paint Obama in a blue dress, seated on a sofa in the Red Room.

"I just kept saying, I want to do this. I hope this works out. I really want to do this. I'm, I'm good for this. And I had told my friends that I had wanted to paint Michelle a while ago," Sprung said in the "1600 sessions" episode.

The warm tones in Sprung's portrait of the former first lady also stands in contrast to the portrait unveiled in 2018 by Amy Sherald, who used her signature shades of gray for skin color in her image of Obama.

PHOTO: 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, Sept. 7, 2022.
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, Sept. 7, 2022.
Andrew Harnik/AP

Growing emotional in her remarks, the former first lady said the day was not about her or the images, but illustrating what is possible in America -- calling out hyperpartisanship in Washington.

“And as much as some folks might want us to believe that that story has lost some of its shine, that division and discrimination and everything else might have dimmed its light, I still know, deep in my heart, that what we share as my husband continues to say is so much bigger than what we don't. Our democracy is so much stronger than our differences,” Obama said.

The ceremony returned to the White House after a 10-year hiatus. It was then-President Obama who last held such a ceremony, when he welcomed back former president George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush for an unveiling of their official portraits back in 2012.

The public unveiling of presidential portraits as we know it today started in 1978 during the Carter administration, according to White House Historical Association President Stewart McLaurin.

"The Carters were the first to invite the Fords back for the reveal of their portrait. Prior to that, they were just kind of hung up when they were done," McLaurin said.

Since then, an unofficial tradition began of the current president hosting their most recent predecessor at the White House for the event with few exceptions -- events that have often been bipartisan with some good-natured ribbing.

"George, I will always remember the gathering you hosted for all the living former presidents before I took office, your kind words of encouragement. Plus, you also left me a really good TV sports package. I use it," Obama joked in 2012 of George W. Bush.

PHOTO: In this May 31, 2012 file photo President Barack Obama applauds former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington D., where the Bush's portraits were unveiled.
In this May 31, 2012 file photo President Barack Obama applauds former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington D., where the Bush's portraits were unveiled.
Charles Dharapak/AP, FILE

Obama’s remarks at the ceremony Wednesday also had the light-hearted and humorous edge that have become synonymous with the event -- particularly as he spoke about the images themselves.

“I want to thank Sharon Sprung for capturing everything I love about Michelle. Her grace, her intelligence, and the fact that she is fine. She’s fine! She is,” Obama said of his wife’s portrait.

Of his own portrait, the former president said he liked in particular that Robert McCurdy “paints people exactly the way they are, for better or worse.”

“He captures every wrinkle on your face, every crease in your shirt. You'll note that he refused to hide any of my great hairs, refused my request to make my ears smaller. He also talked me out of wearing a tanned suit, by the way,” Obama joked

Still, the event also featured heartfelt messages from Biden and Obama, who heaped praise on their respective former running mates.

“There are a few people that I've ever known with more integrity, decency, and moral courage than Barack Obama. Mr. President, nothing could've prepared me better or more to become President of the United States than being by your side for eight years and I mean that from the bottom of my heart,” Biden said of Obama.

The tradition of hosting the most recent former president for an unveiling was notably broken during the Trump presidency, with the former president eschewing the event -- a perhaps unsurprising decision, given Trump's baseless claims that Obama spied on his 2016 presidential campaign, and was not born in the United States.

Despite the wait, McLaurin predicted the event at the White House Wednesday would be a "happy, positive" moment for the Obamas.

"There's a sense of anticipation and excitement about it. And the President and First Lady who are depicted in those portraits have seen them of course, but the reality of having them unveiled in full scale size right there in the East Room of the White House. It's just a moment -- it's almost like a Christmas morning," he said.

The process for creating the portraits begins at the end of an outgoing president's term, with the selection of an artist they'd like to complete their portrait. The White House Historical Association, a non-profit, non-partisan organization started in 1961 by first lady Jackie Kennedy, then contracts the artist to complete the historic image.

According to McLaurin, it typically takes three to four years for the portraits to be completed, but there is no hard and fast deadline for the process.

The Obama portraits have been completed for "a few years," he said.

As for Trump's official portrait, McLaurin said the artists have been identified and contracted for the former president and first lady's portraits, but did not have more details about where in the process they are.

"Typically they would have conversations or they would talk about style and process and things in the background. Sometimes presidents or first ladies put things that have some meaning or purpose or tell a story behind them," McLaurin said.

"I don't know how much of that has happened with the Trump's. I do know that their artists have been identified," he added.

After its creation in 1961, the White House Historical Association undertook the task of acquiring portraits for every former president and first lady to complete the collection of iconic images of the nation's leaders.

"You know, with the Founding Fathers and the early presidents, Americans did not know what their presidents looked like," McLaurin said. "Americans depended on these images that were created and disseminated across the United States."

"In contemporary modern presidents, we are supersaturated every day with what they look like. So, to me, the interesting take on these portraits is this is really how a president and a first lady see themselves and how they want to be remembered."