The official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama commissioned by the White House Historical Association were unveiled this morning in the East Room of the building. The ceremony, presided over by President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden and attended by the Obamas, was the first of its kind in ten years. Historically, each incoming president has invited his predecessor and his wife for the reveal of the couple’s official portraits, which hang in the Grand Foyer of the White House alongside those of their own predecessors. Former President Donald Trump has ditched the tradition and has yet to offer his own likeness. Thus, the portraits of the Obamas will rub shoulders with those of George W. and Laura Bush.
Barack Obama chose photorealist painter Robert McCurdy to render his portrait, which shows the former commander-in-chief, dressed in a dark suit and pale shirt and tie, looking directly at the viewer. It appears against a pure white background devoid of the trappings of power that frequently appear in such likenesses, and this feature alone distinguishes the work from previous White House presidential portraits. The depiction is typical of McCurdy’s style, as he regularly avoids background elements in his portraits.
Michelle Obama chose Sharon Sprung, a veteran painting teacher at the Art Students League of New York, to create her portrait. The former first lady is pictured wearing a strapless turquoise dress and lying on a red sofa with a gold pattern, in front of a salmon-colored background, staring coldly at the viewer. The soft strokes and abstract background are characteristic of Sprung’s work, and the warmth of the paint contrasts and complements the icy realism of Barack Obama’s portrait.
The paintings are more conventional than the 2018 portraits of the couple commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, for which the former president selected Kehinde Wiley and the former first lady chose Amy Sherald, but nonetheless evoke modernity. The difference in style between the two sets of paintings is not surprising, as the presidential portraits in the National Gallery are often experimental, while those hanging in the White House are more classical in nature.