By Nehru Odeh
The oft-quoted saying by French writer Victor Hugo that no force on earth can stop an idea whose time has come came to the fore on Wednesday 7 September when former American President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle unveiled their official portraits at the White house.
It was a very special event because the unveiling had long been awaited, after former President Donald Trump prevented Obama and his wife from unveiling their portraits after their tenure as president and first lady respectively.
Former presidents and first ladies typically have two official portraits completed upon leaving office. One set hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, while the other enters the collection of the White House Historical Association to be displayed in the White House. The Obamas’ portraits in the National Portrait Gallery were completed in 2018.
As is customary, presidents host their predecessor to unveil their formal portraits, but former President Trump upended that tradition, declining to welcome the Obamas back to the White House during his tenure. The Obamas hosted former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura at the White House in 2012.
But after that hiatus, Obama and his wife Michelle returned to the White House on Wednesday for the formal unveiling of their official White House portraits, revealing the paintings that will hang in the White House for years to come.
President Biden and First Lady, Jill Biden, hosted the couple for what marked Michelle Obama’s first visit to the White House since her husband left office in 2017. The former president visited the White House in April for a celebration of the anniversary of the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
“Barack and Michelle, welcome home,” Biden told the Obamas Wednesday. “Welcome home.”
“It is great to be back,” Obama said after their portraits were unveiled. “Thank you so much for your hospitality. Thanks for letting us invite a few friends to the White House. We will try not to tear up the place.”
Biden then lauded his former boss, telling him that “nothing could have prepared me better or more to become president of the United States than being at your side for eight years, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”
Artist Robert McCurdy painted the former president, and Sharon Sprung painted the former first lady.
“I want to thank Sharon Sprung for capturing everything I love about Michelle: Her grace, her intelligence, and the fact that she’s fine,” Obama said, eliciting laughs and cheers from the audience. “And I want to thank Robert McCurdy for taking on a much more difficult subject, and doing a fantastic job with mine.”
The portrait of the former president depicts him in a black suit with a gray tie, in the artist’s signature photorealistic style. The portrait of Mrs. Obama shows her in a blue dress, seated on a red sofa in the Red Room. Her portrait also draws entirely upon photos Sprung took.
“For me, this day is not just about what has happened,” Mrs. Obama 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.”
In a video released by the Obama Foundation ahead of the unveiling, McCurdy said the “marathon” process took him about 18 months, while Sprung said she worked on nothing but Michelle Obama’s portrait for eight or nine months. Both said they had the viewer in mind as they painted.
“I wanted people to pass by the painting and recognize her, or be more curious even about her or to read more about her, but to get her,” Sprung said in a video about the process.
“The way the painting is constructed is entirely about the viewer,” McCurdy said.
Sprung described how painting is a journey.
“I don’t know how my paintings are going to turn out,” Sprung said. “You just follow your feeling the whole time, and I have enough confidence at this point in myself as a painter to do that,” she said.