And, Obama joked at the unveiling on Wednesday, no beige suit.
“We’re not looking for a gestural moment,” McCurdy said in a recent interview with the White House Historical Association, which acquires and funds official portraits of presidents and first ladies. “We are looking for a more meditative or transcendent moment.”
Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and light gray tie, his hands in his pockets, Obama gazes down at the viewer from the canvas with an enigmatic expression. Nothing else disturbs the composition.
“What I love about Robert’s work is that he paints people exactly as they are, for better or for worse. He captures every wrinkle in your face, every crease in your shirt,” said Obama said at Wednesday’s ceremony. “You’ll notice he refused to hide my gray hair. He refused my request to make my ears smaller. He also talked me out of wearing a beige suit, by the way.”
“It feels like being face to face, making a connection,” Obama continued. “I liked that, partly because presidents get brushed off so often. They even take on mythical status, especially after you’re gone, and people forget about everything they didn’t like about you.”
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’s part of my process that the model doesn’t say anything about how the paint looks. They’re completely outside the process,” he said. “He was open to that and ok with that process, so he never saw the footage that we worked from.”
“I felt that confidence coming from her, that you do your thing, I do my thing, I’m going to trust you with your thing, and I think the portrayal works better sometimes that way. That she didn’t not contributed much other than showing up,” Sprung told the historical association.
Like that of her husband, Michelle Obama’s portrait is painted in a distinctive style that breaks the mold of more traditional portraits that hang in the White House. Wearing an off-the-shoulder powder blue dress designed by Jason Wu, she sits on a sofa in the Red Room of the White House, posing against a terracotta backdrop. Like the former president, she looks directly out of frame at the viewer.
“Your work is phenomenal, but it was your essence, your soul, the way you saw me, the way we interacted, and it shows in this beautiful work,” Michelle Obama said at the ceremony. of unveiling.
The paintings are historic in another way: they capture the first black president and first lady.
“They look different. But I don’t think that needs to be explained to people either. I think people seem to get it,” McCurdy said.
When the Obamas selected artists for earlier portraits that hung in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, they selected black painters – Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald – who at that time were still emerging in the field.
The painters behind the official White House portraits are both established artists. McCurdy, whose signature is hyper-photorealistic paintings on white backgrounds, has painted Jeff Bezos, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Jane Goodall, among others.
Sprung has had a long career in figurative painting, including paintings for Congress, and has a connection to White House portraits of the past: When she was younger, she developed an artistic relationship with Aaron Shikler, who painted iconic White House portraits of John F. Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan.
“I don’t want it to look like it was made in 2013, or anything. I want it to look like it was made at that time and in that place,” Sprung said. in a video with the White House Historical Association.
The artist selection process began when the Obamas were still in the White House, including in-person interviews in the Oval Office. Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, attended Sprung’s interview with the couple.
Then-President Obama and McCurdy discussed the painting process, including releasing control of the final product to the artist and the connection between the viewer and the subject he is aiming for in each of his paintings.
“I think he really liked this franchise,” McCurdy said.
When Sprung visited the Oval Office during the Obamas’ stay in the White House for a conversation about the portrait, she brought with her some preliminary drawings of the then-first lady to give the couple a sense of where they are headed.
“He picked a couple he liked, and she picked a couple she liked, who were in very different moods. And I found that really fascinating, but it gave me an idea of both.” , Sprung said.
McCurdy begins his process by taking about 100 photographs of his subject against a white background. After selecting a single image to paint from, the rest of the images are destroyed and a 12-18 month painting process begins.
All Obama had to do, McCurdy said, was to keep his mark and not budge.
“He did a great job in that regard,” McCurdy said. The former president was “charming” and “very present”, he said.
When Sprung arrived at the White House for a shoot with Michelle Obama, she decided to leave her paintings behind — “I didn’t want to leave my mark” — but instead photographed her and chatted while the Obamas’ dogs were barking. the lawn.
“I had them move furniture from the Red Room to the Blue Room because the light was better,” she explained in an interview with the White House Historical Association.
Sprung is shorter than Michelle Obama; her original plan to paint the first lady standing – similar to official portraits of Jaqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan – ended up changing when she realized she was looking at her rather than being level with her.
“I was going to do her standing up to give her some dignity — but she doesn’t need any dignity. She has so much dignity that I decided to do it sitting down,” Sprung said.
As McCurdy toiled over his portrayal of President Obama, it became a challenge to keep the project completely secret. He does not work with assistants, but those who helped print the photographs or entered his studio are sworn to secrecy.
Nor did he have any additional sessions with the former president. Instead, during the 18-month painting process, the subject became less of a person and more of a project.
“They become after a year, a year and a half, it becomes more of an object of sorts, like a technical issue. I don’t really feel like I’m getting to know them as I work with them on the web,” he said.
For Sprung, the portrait of Michelle Obama was the longest she had ever worked on a painting: eight months.
“I worked on it day and night. And I said good morning to him, and I said good night to him,” she said. The most difficult detail, Sprung said, wasn’t her face, her hands or any part of her body, but her dress.
McCurdy’s challenge was to create a moment “where there is no time,” he said.
“There is no before, no after. As if this moment was the same over a long period of time, like a bell that rings continues to ring. And it’s a way of locking the viewer into the moment,” he said.