Obama’s presidential portrait unveils speeches on democracy and tradition

WASHINGTON, Sept 7 (Reuters) – Former President Barack Obama and his wife, former first lady Michelle Obama, returned to the White House on Wednesday to unveil their official portraits at an event punctuated with jokes but tinged with history and politics.

Greeted by Democratic President Joe Biden more than five years after Obama’s departure, the Obamas were applauded by former staffers gathered in the East Room and praised the artists for capturing their images, which will hang on the White House for generations to come. .

Artist Robert McCurdy placed Barack Obama, dressed in a black suit and gray tie, at the center of his canvas in a photorealistic portrait on a white background.

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The former first lady is pictured in a blue dress in the Red Room of the White House, in a painting by Brooklyn artist Sharon Sprung.

The event was a reunion of sorts for Obama administration officials and for the Obamas and Bidens, who have grown close during Biden’s eight years as Obama’s vice president.

“There are few people I have known with more integrity, decency and moral courage than Barack Obama,” Biden said at the start of the ceremony. “Nothing could have prepared me better or more to become President of the United States than to be by your side for eight years.”

Large formal portraits of US presidents and first ladies adorn the walls, hallways and rooms of the White House.

Usually, a former president returns for the unveiling during his successor’s term, but a ceremony for the Obamas has not been held during Republican President Donald Trump’s administration.

Trump, before winning the 2016 election and succeeding Obama, pushed the “birther” movement which incorrectly suggested that Obama was not born in the United States.

Obama, the first black president of the United States, thanked Biden, his vice president between 2009 and 2017, for building on the work they did together.

“Because of your decency and your strength, perhaps most importantly your faith in our democracy and the American people, the country is better off than when you took office and we should all be deeply grateful,” he said. Obama said.

He also thanked his former staff, many of whom now work in the White House with Biden, but joked that none had named a new child “Barack” or “Michelle.”

McCurdy’s hyperrealistic painting of the former president is reminiscent of portraits he did of author Toni Morrison and South African leader Nelson Mandela. The artist “refused my request to make my ears smaller,” joked Obama. “He also talked me out of wearing a beige suit,” he added with a laugh, a reference to an unusual 2014 wardrobe choice that dominated the Washington news cycle for days.

Michelle Obama said traditions like the portrait ceremony are important to people watching and participating in a democracy, and she appeared to be referring to Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, in which Trump has was defeated by Biden.

“You see the people, they make their voice heard with their vote. We are holding an inauguration to ensure a peaceful transition of power,” she said. “Once our time is up, we move on.

The first black first lady of the United States also reflected on her unlikely trip to the White House.

“Because as Barack said, if we can find each other on the walls of the most famous address in the world…it’s so important for every young person who doubts themselves to believe that ‘He can too,’ she added. said.

The Obamas did not mention Trump by name and an Obama spokesperson declined to comment on the timing of the unveilings. Obama had hosted former Republican President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, for the unveiling of their portraits in 2012.

“It’s really up to the current president of the White House and the former president depicted in the portrait to determine the right time, but there’s no set timeline,” said Stewart McLaurin, chairman of the White House. Historical Association, the private, non-profit organization that commissions the official portraits of the President and First Lady.

Earlier portraits of the Obamas that were unveiled in 2018 and placed in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington have become a major tourist attraction.

Obama has returned to the White House once since leaving office, joining Biden in April for an event to tout his health care law, known as Obamacare.

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Reporting by Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Heather Timmons, Alistair Bell and Leslie Adler

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