Obama portrait unveiling at the White House

Sharon Sprung, who painted Michelle Obama
Sharon Sprung, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait, applauds during Wednesday’s ceremony. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

When artist Robert McCurdy was taking the high-resolution photograph he would use to paint President Barack Obama’s official portrait, he had some instructions: No smile, no gestures and look directly into the camera.

“We’re not looking for a gestural moment,” McCurdy said in an interview recently with the White House Historical Association, which acquires and funds official portraits of presidents and first ladies. “We’re looking for a more meditative or transcendent moment.”

Years later, those instructions have translated into a strikingly different style of official presidential painting. Set to be unveiled Wednesday in a ceremony in the East Room, the portrait of Obama is a photorealist picture of the former President set against a plain white background.

Wearing a black suit, white shirt and a light gray tie with his hands in his pockets, Obama looks out from the canvas at the viewer with an enigmatic expression. Nothing else disrupts the white background.

After the initial photo was taken from which McCurdy painted, the former President had no say in the final portrait, according to the artist.

“It is part of my process that the sitter doesn’t get to say anything about how the painting looks. They’re completely outside the process,” he said. “He was open to that and accepting of that process, so he never saw the images that we worked from.”

Former first lady Michelle Obama was equally hands off with her final portrait after posing for photographs with her portraitist, New York-based artist Sharon Sprung, in the White House. 

“I felt this trust come from her, that you do your thing, I do my thing, I’m going to trust you with your thing, and I think portraiture works better sometimes like that. That she didn’t contribute that much other than present herself,” Sprung told the historical association.

Like her husband’s, Michelle Obama’s portrait is painted in a distinctive style that breaks a mold of the more traditional portraits hung in the White House. Wearing a powder blue off-the-shoulder gown, she sits on a sofa from the White House Red Room, posing against a terra-cotta backdrop. Like the former President, she stares directly out of the frame at the viewer. 

The paintings are historic in another way: They capture the first Black president and first lady.

“They do look different. But I also don’t think that it needs to be explained to people. I think people seem to get it,” McCurdy said.

When the Obamas selected artists for earlier portraits hung at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, they selected Black painters who at that point were still emerging into the field.

Read more about the portraits here.

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