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Michelle and Barack Obama return to the White House for the unveiling of their official portraits

The tradition of portraits for former Presidents and First Ladies returned this week with a White House ceremony attended by administration officials.

Obamas' White House portraits unveiled

In a White House ceremony on Wednesday the official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama were unveiled. The couple were making their first joint visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since leaving office in 2017.

The ceremony took place in the East Room in a return of a presidential tradition that had been put on hold for the past decade. President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden brought together a collection of officials from the past two Democrat-led administrations.

The most recent addition to the White House Collection came in 2012 when then-President Obama hosted a bipartisan unveiling ceremony for the portrait of his predecessor, George W. Bush. The unveiling of a new portrait is not tied by any official schedule but is typically unveiled by the President’s successor. While in office, President Donald Trump did not hold a ceremony for the Obama portraits.

Obamas opt for contemporary White House portraits

The walls of the White House are adorned with portraits of former Presidents and their spouses. Former President Obama’s image was painted by accomplished artist Robert McCurdy, who specialises in hyper-realistic depictions of the subject, set against a white backdrop.

He has also painted Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Jane Goodall, and these experiences were mentioned in conversation with Barack Obama. After a single sitting with the former President, during which he took a number of photographs to aid his memory, McCurdy embarked on the 18-month painting process without any additional sittings.

But despite the lack of face-to-face interaction, there can be no complaint about the accuracy of Obama’s presidential portrait.

“What I love about Robert’s work is that he paints people exactly the way they are, for better or worse. He captures every wrinkle on your face, every crease in your shirt,” Obama said during Wednesday’s ceremony.

That appealed to me, in part because presidents so often get air brushed. They even take on a mythical status, especially after you’ve gone, and people forget all the stuff they didn’t like about you.”

The portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama was painted by Sharon Sprung, who describes her style as “contemporary realism.” In contrast to the portrait of her monochrome-suited husband on a white background, her painting features striking colour and is a more stylised depiction.

In the portrait she is seated on a sofa in the Red Room of the White House, wearing a pale blue Jason Wu Collection gown. She too praised the portraits for their honest portrayal of the former inhabitants of the White House and the image they present to people across the country.

“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 are seeing is a reminder that there is a place for everyone in this country,” the former first lady said.


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