Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama’s official White House portraits were unveiled during an emotional ceremony at the White House on Wednesday — marking their first joint visit to the building since they left in 2017 and the return of a Washington tradition last celebrated 10 years ago.
“Barack and Michelle, welcome home,” said Biden at the ceremony, to greet the former First Couple. But his sharing the unveiling with the very president he served under was unusual. CBS News reports that it’s customary for presidents to host their predecessors to reveal their formal portraits. However, former President Donald Trump, during his presidency, declined to welcome the Obamas back to the White House during his single term in office. In 2012, the Obamas hosted former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura for the unveiling of their White House portraits.
Artist Robert McCurdy painted the former president, and Sharon Sprung painted the former first lady. McCurdy is known for his photorealistic style. Sprung’s own photography provided the inspiration with which she painted her portrait.
The image of the country’s first Black president depicts Obama in a black suit with a gray tie. Mrs. Obama wears a blue dress in her portrait. She is seated on a red sofa in the Red Room.
In his usual jocular self-deprecating tone, Obama earned laughs when telling the audience how much he enjoyed the portraits. “I want to thank Sharon Sprung for capturing everything I love about Michelle: Her grace, her intelligence, and the fact that she’s fine!” He continued, “And I want to thank Robert McCurdy for taking on a much more difficult subject, and doing a fantastic job with mine.”
Laughter from the crowd followed the former president’s remarks.
The Obama Foundation released a video in advance of the official unveiling.
McCurdy called his process an 18 month “marathon.” Sprung said she focused exclusively on Michelle Obama’s portrait for about nine months.
These official White House portraits are commissioned by the White House Historical Association. The portraits that hang in the National Portrait Gallery, commissioned by the Smithsonian, were unveiled in 2018 to great fanfare. Americans have been able to view those paintings, as they have toured the nation since 2020. Kehinde Wiley, the artist famed for his paintings of Black people that reference the work of Old Master paintings, painted President Obama. Painter Amy Sherald, whose realistic style often challenges notions of race and identity, painted Mrs. Obama. Official White House portraits tend to conform to traditional and realistic style.
The unveiling marked Michelle Obama’s first visit to the White House since the Obama family left the White House in 2017. The former president returned to the White House in April to commemorate the anniversary of the passage of the Affordable Care Act.