By Karen Stokes
The official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama were unveiled on Wednesday in the East Room of the White House.
“Barack and Michelle, welcome home,” President Joe Biden said at a ceremony celebrating the former first couple.
The time honored tradition which started with The White House Historical Association who have had an active role in acquiring and donating portraits of recent presidents and first ladies since 1965 when the Association negotiated to acquire a portrait of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt from the widow of artist Douglas Granville Chandor. Since that time, it has been a goal to acquire contemporary or historic portraits of presidents and first ladies, “either to represent those not in the collection or to replace earlier likenesses judged less than successful.”
Wednesday marked the first time in 10 years that a sitting president has invited a former president back for a revealing of the portraits reviving the bipartisan tradition.
In 2012, President Obama hosted former President George W. Bush to unveil his portrait. President Obama noted that, despite their very different political ideologies, “the presidency transcends those differences.”
The Trump administration did not schedule a photo ceremony for the Obamas.
Artists commissioned for the projects were Robert McCurdy, for the president, and Sharon Sprung, for the first lady.
Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, described the two paintings as nontraditional, unconventional and different.
“To some people they will be a surprise and different because they are nontraditional. To others, they will be very affirming,” McLaurin said.
McCurdy has a portfolio doing portraits of the Dalai Lama, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nelson Mandela and Warren Buffett. He is well known for oil paintings that look nearly like photographs.
Sprung, who began working as an artist at the age of 19, got started by working with Aaron Shikler, who did the portraits of former first ladies Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan, also former President John Kennedy.
“For me, this day is not just about what has happened,” she said. “It’s also about what could happen, 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.”
Mrs. Obama said the portraits are a “reminder that there’s a place for everyone in this country.”
“When future generations walk these halls and look up at these portraits, I hope they get a better honest sense of who Michelle and I were. And I hope they leave with a deeper understanding that if we could make it here, maybe they can, too. They can do remarkable things, too,” Obama said.