Four Years Later, New Official Obama Portraits Are Unveiled

Robert McCurdy’s portrait of Obama and Sharon Sprung’s portrait of Michelle Obama, both painted in 2018 (images courtesy White House Historical Association/White House Collection).

Today, September 7, the White House unveiled a second set of official Obama portraits in an event hosted by President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden and attended by the Obamas. In keeping with tradition, the former president and first lady chose the artists who would paint them — Robert McCurdy and Sharon Sprung, respectively — and the completed works will now hang in the White House.

Presidents and first ladies receive two sets of official portraits: one goes to the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, for public display, and one stays in the collection of the White House. The former, painted by Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley, became immediately famous when the portraits were unveiled in 2018 and are now on a national tour. (They are currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

The tradition dates back to 1965, when the White House Historical Association began commissioning portraits of America’s presidents and first ladies. While the first set of portraits is unveiled during the president’s term, the second set is presented after they’ve left office. Normally, the sitting president holds a ceremony to unveil the previous president’s second portrait, but in an unsurprising move, former President Donald Trump did not hold the ceremony for Obama. (It is unclear whether President Biden will hold one for President Trump.)

Now, four years too late, McCurdy’s and Sprung’s 2018 paintings will hang on the wall at long last. McCurdy, known for his hyperrealism, said it took 18 months to complete Barack Obama’s portrait. The result is a depiction of Barack Obama—in photographic detail—standing against a stark white background.

The artist said in a statement that Sprung’s depiction of Michelle is softer; a bright depiction of the former first lady in a blue gown, sitting on an embroidered red couch in front of a pink wall. Sprung said she felt a certain mutual trust with Michelle: “I think portraiture works better sometimes like that.”

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