Robert McCurdy’s portrait of Obama and Sharon Sprung’s portrait of Michelle Obama, both painted in 2018 (images courtesy White House Historical Association/White House Collection)

Today, September 7, the White House unveiled a second set of official Obama portraits in an event hosted by President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden and attended by the Obamas. In keeping with tradition, the former president and first lady chose the artists who would paint them — Robert McCurdy and Sharon Sprung, respectively — and the completed works will now hang in the White House.

Presidents and first ladies receive two sets of official portraits: One goes to the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, for public display, and one stays in the collection of the White House. The former, painted by Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley, became immediately famous when the portraits were unveiled in 2018 and are now on a national tour. (They are currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

The Obama portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald (photo via Flickr)

The tradition dates back to 1965, when the White House Historical Association began commissioning portraits of America’s presidents and first ladies. While the first set of portraits is unveiled during the president’s term, the second set is presented after they’ve left office. Normally, the sitting president holds a ceremony to unveil the previous president’s second portrait, but in an unsurprising move, former President Donald Trump did not hold the ceremony for Obama. (It is unclear whether President Biden will hold one for Trump.)

Now, four years too late, McCurdy’s and Sprung’s 2018 paintings will hang on the wall at long last. McCurdy, known for his hyperrealism, said it took 18 months to complete Barack Obama’s portrait. The result is a depiction of Barack — in photographic detail — standing against a stark white background.

Sprung’s depiction of Michelle is softer; a bright depiction of the former first lady in a blue gown, sitting on an embroidered red couch in front of a pink wall. Sprung said she felt a certain mutual trust with Michelle: “I think portraiture works better sometimes like that,” the artist said in a statement.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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4 Comments

  1. Elaine, thank you for your informative article on the Obama portraits (both sets.) I also want to express my gratitude to the Hyperallergic staff, in general, for putting out this newsletter and keeping me apprised of what “is out there” in the world of art. However, I DO have a comment that hopefully Hakim Bashara might give some consideration. Though I personally may stylistically “like” the portraits done by Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley more, it’s my belief that “liking” is an incomplete way of evaluating works of art. I get that critics might feel a need to be “critical” in their reviews, but I think we, as viewers/consumers of art, have a responsibility to work a little at understanding where an artist is coming from and stretch ourselves beyond our simple “likes and dislikes”. Let’s face it, most artists have invested a great deal of time and thought in creating a work. I think we owe them more than a minute to fire off a snarky dismissal. That said, I am puzzled that no one took the time to reflect on Robert McCurdy’s portrait long enough to wonder about what I imagine was a very conscious choice to place Obama on what appears to be a stark WHITE background– a Black president in a black suit in a White house that has never SEEN such a thing (personally, I would also wonder about the shades of white within his shirt and tie and what that might signify in terms of a Black man transitioning into that previously White World.) Enough. (Full disclosure: I will admit I got a chuckle out of the “Disney princesses” comment.
    And, I am more of an expressionistic, semi-abstract painter, so don’t have any particular bias towards hyper-realistic work.)

    1. Hi Steven, thanks for your comment, but have you researched any of the artists because McCurdy’s portraits are predominantly on white backgrounds. I’m glad you find that interesting but the insight is nothing specific to Obama. But I’m glad it speaks to you. Our relationship with the art may change, and I’d be happy to change my opinion if new information presents itself, but I simply don’t think we need to applaud a portrait simply because it is of someone we may appreciate. I wonder if you would’ve thought differently if these works depicted the Trumps.

  2. What Steve S. said. This article is pretty neutral, but the email promo from a senior editor and the editor-in-chief was downright nasty – “they’re really bad,” “a passport photo taken on a bad day,” and comparing one to a Sears portrait studio (my, that’s a slam at working class culture if I’ve ever seen one). I’d even add that Hyperallergic would never be so snarky had McCurdy and Sprung been artists of color. Please, more reporting and less editorializing.

    1. Thanks for you comment, Lincoln. Good try trying to make the comment classist, but any type of judgment can be perceived in a way that others don’t like, and if you like art I’m going to assume there is art you don’t like you are entitled to comment on it regardless of the opinions of others. Sear Portrait Studio can be a terrible place to work, my uncle worked at one for years, and I have no problem saying that since I also don’t think it’s the same level of production and innovation that other portraits can achieved. Also, the portraits are public and we can all have opinions. And yes, I think they’re not interesting works of art and are not a way we should be portraying our leaders in 2022. I don’t appreciate the way you are trying to police the opinions of others though, but I’m delighted you commented. Happy to disagree.

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