White House Portraits Are ‘Testament of American Values,’ Michelle Obama Says
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcomed former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama at the White House on Wednesday to unveil the Obamas’ official portraits painted by artists Robert McCurdy and Sharon Sprung.
During the unveiling ceremony in the East Room, Biden spoke of the close relationship he had with his former commander in chief.
“For eight years, we grew to be a family for each other through our highs and our lows, family from different backgrounds brought together by a shared value set and all of the things that the families have done together. I imagine there may have been other relationships like this between a president and a vice president, but none comes to mind,” Biden said.
“Mr. President, that’s why the country elected you twice. It’s why you’ll be considered one of the most consequential presidents in our history, along with one of the most consequential first ladies,” Biden said.
Obama responded in kind, saying, “Thanks to your decency, 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.”
“Joe, it is now America’s good fortune to have you as president,” he said.
While the two leaders’ affinity for each other was on full display, Michelle Obama delivered a moving speech highlighting her story, that of a Black girl who grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Chicago and became the nation’s first lady.
“For me, this day isn’t about me or Barack. It’s not even about the beautiful paintings,” she said. “It’s about telling that fuller story, a story that includes every single American, in every single corner of the country, so that our kids and grandkids can see something more for themselves.”
The portraits are a testament of the American values the story embodies, she said.
“That is what this country is about,” the former first lady said. “It’s not about blood or pedigree or wealth. It’s a place where everyone should have a fair shot, whether you’re a kid taking two buses and a train just to get to school or a single mother who’s working two jobs to put some food on the table. Or an immigrant, just arriving, getting your first apartment, forging a future for yourself in a place you’ve dreamed of.”
Michelle Obama rejected the notion that the country’s division would cause people to lose faith in the nation.
“I still know deep in my heart that what we share — as my husband continues to say — is so much bigger than what we don’t. Our democracy is so much stronger than our differences,” she said.
Wednesday was Barack Obama’s second visit to the White House since leaving office. He last visited in April to celebrate the 12th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, the health care law known as Obamacare, that he signed in 2010. It was Michelle Obama’s first visit since her husband’s term ended in January 2017.
The Obamas’ official portraits have been kept tightly under wraps, and the names of the artists who painted them were revealed only during the ceremony.
Obama’s portrait, in which he wears a black suit with a gray tie against a stark white backdrop, is the work of American artist Robert McCurdy, known for his photorealistic oil paintings of visionaries including the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela.
“He captures every wrinkle on your face, every crease in your shirt,” Obama said. “You’ll note that he refused to hide any of my gray hairs. Refused my request to make my ears smaller.”
In a jab to Republicans who once attacked him for his fashion choices, Obama joked that McCurdy “also talked me out of wearing a tan suit, by the way.”
Sharon Sprung, who describes her work as “contemporary realism,” painted Michelle Obama in a blue dress seated on a sofa in the Red Room of the White House.
“Sharon now joins a small but mighty group of women who’ve painted an official portrait here at the White House,” Michelle Obama said.
The paintings are separate from the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively, that were commissioned by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in 2018.
Began with Washington
The White House has presidential portraits on display in various rooms, beginning with that of America’s first president, George Washington, which was bought by Congress. Other earlier presidents’ portraits were added to the collection as gifts. Since 1965, the portraits have been funded by the private, nonprofit White House Historical Association, starting with those of Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson and John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy.
“The portrait artists aim to capture each unique appearance and personality, piecing together our presidential history through these individual works of art,” the association said in a statement.
Regardless of party affiliation, the president in office usually hosts and unveils the portrait of his immediate predecessor. This tradition was broken under President Donald Trump, who promoted the so-called birther movement based on the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and had no right to the presidency.
While presidents and first ladies typically begin discussions on their official portraits even before they leave the White House, Trump, who left office without conceding that he’d lost the 2020 election, is unlikely to have done so.
The White House did not respond when asked whether it has begun discussions on a Trump portrait and whether Biden would host an unveiling ceremony for his predecessor.