The official likenesses of former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama commissioned by the White House Historical Association were unveiled this morning in the building’s East Room. 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 arriving president has invited his predecessor and their spouse for the reveal of the pair’s official portraits, which hang in the Grand Foyer of the White House alongside those of their own predecessors. Former president Donald Trump scrapped the tradition and has not yet offered his own likeness. As a result, the Obamas’ portraits will hang alongside 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, clad in a dark suit and pale shirt and tie, gazing directly at the viewer. He appears against a stark white background devoid of the trappings of power that frequently appear in such likenesses, and this characteristic alone sets the work apart from previous presidential White House portraits. The depiction is typical of McCurdy’s style, as he regularly eschews background elements in his likenesses.
Michelle Obama picked Sharon Sprung, a veteran painting instructor at the Art Students League in New York, to create her portrait. The former first lady is shown wearing a strapless turquoise gown and reclining atop a red settee with a gold pattern, before a salmon-colored ground, coolly regarding the viewer. The soft features and abstract ground are characteristic of Sprung’s work, and the warmth of the painting contrasts with and complements the icy realism of Barack Obama’s portrait.
The paintings are more conventional than the 2018 portraits of the pair commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, for which the former president selected Kehinde Wiley and the former first lady chose Amy Sherald, but evoke modernity nonetheless. The difference in styles between the two sets of paintings is unsurprising, as the National Gallery presidential portraits are often experimental, while those hanging in the White House are of a more classic nature.