WASHINGTON (AP) — Former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, returned to the White House on Wednesday, unveiling an official portraits with a modern vibe in an event that pitted humor and nostalgia for his presidency against the current harsh political discourse about the survival of democracy.
As her husband cracked a few jokes about his gray hair, big ears and clothes in his portrait, Mrs. Obama, a descendant of slaves, said the opportunity for her was more about America’s promise to people. like her.
“Barack and Michelle, welcome home,” President Joe Biden said to the cheers of the congregation.
Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, hailed his former boss’s leadership on health care, the economy and immigration and said nothing could have prepared him better to be president than to serve with Obama for those eight years.
“It was always about doing what was right,” he said.
The portrait of Obama, 44th and first black American president, unlike any of its predecessors, and Michelle Obama is unlike any of the women who have filled the role before her.
Obama stands expressionless against a white background, wearing a black suit and gray tie in Robert McCurdy’s portrait that looks more like a large photograph than an oil-on-canvas portrait. The pursed-lipped former first lady sits on a sofa in the Red Room in a light blue strapless dress. She chose artist Sharon Sprung for her portrait.
Dozens of former members of the Obama administration were on hand for the big reveal.
Obama noted that some of them in the East Room audience had started families in the years that followed and feigned disappointment “that I didn’t hear anyone name a child Barack or Michelle.”
He thanked McCurdy for his work, joking that the artist, who is known for his paintings of public figures from Nelson Mandela to the Dalai Lama, had ignored his pleas for less gray hair and smaller ears. “He also talked me out of wearing a beige suit, by the way,” Obama joked, referring to a widely criticized appearance as president in the unflattering suit.
Obama went on to say that his wife was the “best thing about living in the White House,” and he thanked Sprung for “capturing everything I love about Michelle, her grace, her intelligence — and the makes her well.”
Michelle Obama, when it was her turn, started out laughing, saying she had to thank her husband for “such spicy remarks.” To which he retorted, by way of explanation, “I no longer present myself”.
Then the former first lady got serious, linking the unveiling of the portraits to America’s promise for people with backgrounds like hers, a daughter of working-class parents on Chicago’s South Side.
“To me, this day is not just about what happened,” she said. “It’s also about what might happen, because a girl like me, she was never meant to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolley Madison. She was never meant to live in that house , and she certainly wasn’t supposed to serve as first lady.
Mrs Obama said the portraits are a “reminder that there is a place for everyone in this country”.
The tradition is that the incumbent president invites his immediate predecessor to return to the White House to unveil his portrait, but Donald Trump broke with this custom and did not welcome Obama. So, Biden planned a ceremony for his former boss.
Mrs. Obama said tradition is important “not just for those of us who hold these positions, but for everyone who participates in and watches our democracy”.
In remarks that never mentioned Trump but made a point as he continues to contest his 2020 re-election loss, she added: “You see people, they make their voices heard with their vote. We hold an inauguration to ensure a peaceful transition of power…and when our time is up, we move on.
McCurdy, meanwhile, said his “stripped down” style of portraiture helps create an “encounter” between the person in the painting and the person looking at it.
“They have white backgrounds, nobody gestures, nobody – there are no props because we’re not here to tell the story of who’s sitting for them,” said McCurdy at the White House Historical Association during an interview for its “1600 Sessions”. ” podcast.
“We are here to create an encounter between the viewer and the model,” he said. “We say as little as possible about the model so that the viewer can project themselves onto it.”
He works from a photograph of his subject, selected from a hundred images, and spends at least a year on each portrait. The subjects have no say in the appearance of the paint. McCurdy said he knew he was done “when it stops irritating me.”
Obama’s portrait was displayed in the Grand Foyer, the traditional showcase for paintings of the past two presidents. His portrait replaced that of Bill Clinton near the staircase of the residence, the The White House tweeted Wednesday evening. George W. Bush’s portrait hangs on the wall across from Obama’s in the lobby.
Mrs. Obama’s portrait hung one floor below on the ground floor, joining predecessors Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, according to the tweet.
Two Trump spokespersons did not respond to emailed requests for comment on whether the artists had begun work on White House portraits for Trump and former first lady Melania Trump. However, work is underway on a separate pair of Trump portraits for the collection held by the National Portrait Gallery, a Smithsonian museum.
The White House Historical Association, a nonprofit founded in 1961 by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and funded by private donations and book sales and an annual Christmas decoration, helps manage the White House portraiture process . Since the 1960s, the association has financed most of the portraits in the collection.
Congress purchased the first painting in the collection, by George Washington. Other portraits of early presidents and first ladies often came to the White House as gifts.