By Terrance Turner
Sept. 7, 2022
Today, former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama returned to the White House for the unveiling of their official White House portraits. This is their first joint visit to the White House since leaving in 2017. The event marked a kind of reunion for the Obamas and the Bidens; President Joe Biden famously served as Obama’s vice president from 2009 to 2016.
The official portraits of the Obamas were finally unveiled in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday by Mr. Trump’s successor, President Biden. The portraits were commissioned by the White House Historical Association, according to the New York Times. They have been a well-kept secret, along with the identity of their artists: Robert McCurdy, who painted the former president, and Sharon Sprung, who painted the former first lady.
Each artist was selected by the Obamas. Mr. McCurdy, 60, is known for his hyper-realistic portraits of famous figures that could almost be mistaken for photographs. Having earned his bachelor’s in fine arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and received an arts fellowship from Yale University, Mr. McCurdy went on to paint the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Toni Morrison as well as figures like Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Muhammad Ali.
In working with Mr. Obama — someone he said he had always wanted to portray — Mr. McCurdy employed his usual process, in which he carefully lights a photograph (taking about 100 in a session) that he then works from to create his painting, according to the Times. He has a specific direction for his subjects — and a specific speech.
“This is the speech that everybody gets when they sit for me,” he said in an interview for a podcast with Mr. Stuart McLaurin, of the White House Historical Association. “To look directly into the lens. To not smile. Not gesture. And just hold into that moment.
“We’re trying to extend time rather than slice it like a photograph,” he went on. “We’re not looking for a gestural moment. We’re looking for a more meditative or transcendent moment.”
Ms. Sprung, 69, who comes from Glen Cove, N.Y., studied at the Art Students League, where she has taught since 2004. Her portrait subjects have ranged from members of Congress to headmasters to historical figures. Ms. Sprung, in her interview with Mr. McLaurin, described her first meeting with the Obamas in the Oval Office. “I went to sit on this couch and I’m much shorter than either of the Obamas,” she said. “I just kept sinking into this couch thinking, Oh, this is not good, I hope they can see me.”
She said she suggested having Mrs. Obama sit rather than stand, in part so that the former first lady could be at the artist’s eye level. “I was going to do her standing to give it a certain dignity,” Ms. Sprung said. “But she doesn’t need dignity. She has so much dignity that I decided to do it sitting.”
President Biden delivered remarks ahead of the unveiling. “Barack and Michelle, welcome home. Jill and I, and Kamala and Douglas, are honored to host you and so many friends who have been part of this incredible journey. It includes members of your cabinet and staff — some of whom were foolish enough to come work with me,” he said, to laughs. “And there’s someone else that I’d like to acknowledge tonight: Mrs. Robinson, this is your house as well,” he said acknowledging Mrs Obama’s mother. He also acknowledged Mr. Obama’s mother, known affectionately as “Mama Kay”.
“President Kennedy noted that every president must observe the gap between what he would like and what is possible. He was right. The history books are full of stories of presidents trying to bridge that gap: stories that include the burdens of the office, the difficult decisions, how the work is always serious and often solemn — and all of that’s true. But so is this: with Barack as our President, we got up every day and went to work full of hope – for real – full of purpose and excited about the possibility before us. There are few people I’ve ever known with more integrity, decency, and moral courage than Barack Obama.”
“Mr. President, nothing could have prepared me better or more to become president of the United States than to be at your side for eight years, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”
“You know, no matter what the issue was, how difficult it was or what it was about, you never did it just the easy way, with the easy way out was. it was never about doing it that way. It was always about doing what was right literally you know, just go down the list of historic presidencies. He never gave up on the simple truth that healthcare was a right for all Americans, when so many were telling him — including me, at one point — to take the compromise. Take the compromise. we weren’t sure we could get anything done on ACA. Think about the compromise you refused you went big and now the Affordable Care Act is there permanently, and it’s even being improved on.”
Biden cited Obama’s passage of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act and the auto bailout: “You bet on the American worker; you believed in the American worker, even though you knew it would have been controversial you stood up for hundreds of thousands of DREAMers — dreamers, who only knew America as their home. It still boggles my mind that people can’t understand, that a three-year-old would say: ‘No, Mom; leave me on this side of the Rio Grande. You go ahead and go.’ I’m serious.”
Obama, Biden said, “helped us find that amazing grace — that amazing grace, even in darkness. In countless hours of countless meetings, under intense pressure, we always knew Barack Obama we always knew what you do what you felt was right even if it was going to cost you politically. You know, we trusted him — all of you in this room. We believed in him and we counted on him. And I still do.”
Biden told Obama that “you’ll be considered one of the most consequential presidents of our history, along with one of the most consequential first ladies. You know, Michelle, he knows – we all know: he couldn’t have done it without you,” Biden whispered, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd.
“In fact we had lunch every week, once a week, come hell or high water. Everybody wondered about all the important things we talked about. Probably 40% of the time we talked about family; we talked about our girls and my grandchildren.”
Biden continued: “You embodied dignity beyond measure, Michelle, and together you and Barack made history. You both generated hope for millions of people who were left behind for so long and it matters. You both did it with such grace and such class.”
Barack Obama returned the favor, paying tribute to Biden when he delivered remarks. “Someone once said that if you’re looking for a friend in Washington, get a dog. Our family was lucky enough to have two wonderful dogs. But I was even luckier to have a chance to spend eight years working day and night with a man who became a true partner and a true friend. Joe, it is now America’s good fortune to have you as president,” Obama said to applause (which he joined). Members of the audience joined him in a standing ovation for President Joe Biden.
“You have guided us through some perilous times. You’ve built on and gone beyond the work we all did together to expand healthcare, to fight climate change, to advance social justice, and to promote economic fairness. Thanks to your decency, and thanks to your strength – maybe most of all, thanks to your faith in our democracy and the American people – the country’s better off than when you took office, and we should all be deeply grateful for that. So thank you so much.”
To all the former Obama-Biden staffers who are here in person – some of you are watching at home – thank you for being a part of this. And when people ask me what I miss most about the White House years, it is not Air Force One that I talk about – although I miss Air Force One,” he said, to laughter. “It’s the chance that I had to stand shoulder to shoulder with all of you, to have a chance to witness so many talented, selfless, idealistic, good people working tirelessly every day to make the world better. And for eight years – and even longer for some of you – I drew on your energy and your dedication and your goodness. You inspired me and I never wanted to disappoint you, and I tried to reflect the same heart and character that you displayed every day even during the toughest times. It was all of you that kept me going, so it’s good to be back to have a chance to see all of you and to once again say: thank you.
Now as much as I miss our work together, what’s been a special joy is to see what’s happened since. Because so many of you are doing amazing things, whether it’s in government, in the private sector, in academia or nonprofits, I’m especially glad to see so many of you serving President Biden as well as you served me. Although let’s face it, some of you were kids back then and are now in charge and running the show, which is a little shocking and may also explain some of the gray hairs I’m seeing on some of you,” he joked.
“But it validates what I had always hoped, which was that our time together would only be the beginning of incredibly impactful careers. And some of you, well I’ve had a chance to stay in touch with and I’m thrilled to see that you started families of your own. I am a little disappointed that I haven’t heard of anyone naming a kid Barack yet. Or Michelle,” he joked. “But there is still time.”
“Finally, I want to say a special thanks to the White House staff,” he said. “You took incredible care of our family for eight years and along the way you became a part of it, and we have not ever forgotten the kindness that you showed us.
Now when Michelle and I had our portraits unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery [in Smithsonian] a few years back [in 2018], I said that as far as I could tell, no one in my family tree had ever sat for a portrait before. I certainly had not. And now all of a sudden we’ve done it twice.
But these portraits have a special significance because, as Joe mentioned, they will hang in the White House alongside portraits of other presidents and first ladies dating back to George and Martha [Washington]. So it was important to find the right people to paint them. I want to thank Sharon Sprung for capturing everything I love about Michelle her grace her intelligence and the fact that she is fine.” Big laughs from the audience.
Michelle Obama also spoke. “Well, let me thank my husband, first of all, for such spicy remarks,” she began, to laughter from the crowd. “And of course, thank you to Joe and Jill – President Biden and first lady Jill Biden. Thank you for inviting us back. This means so much to us. We were saying at lunch that the girls have lived in this house longer than they’ve lived anywhere. And so this, as odd of a home as this can be, as wonderful as it can be,” she said, “it is a special place, because we raised our girls here. And it means so much to come back to friends and to be able to spend time talking about our girls, and so I am grateful to both of you for the work that you’re doing, for the love that you’re showing us, our staff, and the work that you’re doing for this country. Thank you so much.”
After applause, she continued. “And of course to Vice President Harris and – I love to say this – Second Gentleman Imhoff…let’s say it again: ‘Second Gentleman.’ You’re doing a great job,” she laughed. “Thank you for joining us today. And I can’t go any further without, of course, acknowledging all the amazing staff – friends; you’re more than staff; you’re friends, you’re family to us. Particularly the people who have been part of my team over the years I don’t have time to name everyone thank goodness, but you all know who you are.
From the campaign to the White House to today, I would not be who I am without your passion and your faith and all the love that you poured into everything that we accomplished together and it was amazing, historic – what did Sam Cass used to say? Unprecedented. You all mean the world to me, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. So thank you. Proud of you, proud of the work that you’ve done, proud of what you’re doing.”
Mrs. Obama thanked Mr. McCurdy and Ms. Sprung for their work. “I’m thrilled that this extraordinary work was going to enshrined forever as part of our nation’s history,” she said. “But Sharon, it was wonderful to work with you you are a true Spirit that’s one of the reasons we connected your work is phenomenal but it was your essence your soul the way you saw me the way we interacted and it shows in this beautiful work. So thank you for your brilliance, your artistry and your patience.
“Believe it or not, it is still a bit odd for me to stand in this historic space and see this big, beautiful painting staring back at me,” she said. “Growing up on Euclid Avenue, I never could’ve imagined that any of this could be part of my story. But even if it’s all still a bit awkward for me, I do recognize why moments like these are important, why all of this is absolutely necessary.”
“Traditions like this matter,” she explained, “not just for those of us who hold these positions but for everyone participating in and watching our democracy. You see, the people make their voices heard with their vote; we hold an inauguration to ensure a peaceful transition of power, and those of us lucky enough to serve work as hard as we can for as long as we can, as long as the people choose to keep us here. And once our time is up, we move on.”
Mrs. Obama movingly spoke of the gravity of this occasion, one she thought would be unthinkable for a Black girl who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. “For me, this day is not just about what has happened, it’s also about what could happen,” she said. “Because a girl like me, she was never supposed to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolley Madison. She was never supposed to live in this house, and she definitely wasn’t supposed to serve as first lady.”
“Love you, Michelle,” called a voice from the audience.
“Love you, too,” she answered. She continued: “But I also wonder where that ‘supposed to’ comes from. Too often in this country people feel like they have to look a certain way or act a certain way to fit in,” she said, “that they have to make a lot of money or come from a certain group or class or faith in order to matter.”
Facing the portraits, she added, “But what we’re looking at today — a portrait of a biracial kid with an unusual name and the daughter of a water pump operator and a stay-at-home mom — what we’re seeing is that there’s a reminder that there’s a place for everyone in this country because, as Barack said, 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,” she added. “That’s what this country is about.”