Obamas Unveil White House Portraits, Including Painting of MICA Graduate – Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, returned to the White House on Wednesday for the unveiling of official portraits with a modern vibe: him standing expressionless against a white backdrop and she sitting on a couch in the room red wearing a formal light blue dress.

“Barack and Michelle, welcome home,” President Joe Biden said before inviting the Obamas to the stage to unveil the portraits. Some in the audience gasped, others clapped.

Robert McCurdy, the artist whom Barack Obama chose to paint his portrait, is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from MICA in 1974.

McCurdy, 60, is known for his realistic paintings of public figures such as the Dalai Lama, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela and Toni Morrison.

At the unveiling, Obama said McCurdy “portrays people exactly as they are, for better or for worse. It captures every wrinkle in your face and every crease in your shirt.

The artist says the “stripped down” style of his works helps create an “encounter” between the person in the painting and the person looking at it.

McCurdy likes to present his subjects without any facial expression and standing against a white background, which is how the 44th and first black American president will be seen here for posterity, in a black suit and gray tie.

Biden and first lady Jill Biden invited Obama and the former first lady back to their former home to unveil their official portraits. It was Michelle Obama’s first visit since her husband’s presidency ended in January 2017. Obama himself visited in April to help celebrate the anniversary of the landmark health care bill that he signed.

The former first lady chose artist Sharon Sprung for her portrait.

The portraits are unlike any other in the collection to which they will be added, both in style and substance.

McCurdy told the White House Historical Association for the latest edition of its “1600 Sessions” podcast that his style was “stripped down for a reason.”

“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. “We are here to create an encounter between the spectator and the model.”

He likened the technique to a session with a psychiatrist in which the patient and doctor tell each other as little as possible about themselves “so that you can project yourself onto them”.

“And we do the same with these paintings,” McCurdy said. “We say as little as possible about the model so that the viewer can project themselves onto it.”

McCurdy works from a photograph of his subjects, selected from hundreds of images. He spends a year to 18 months on each portrait and says he knows he’s done “when it stops irritating me”.

Sprung, who was also interviewed for the podcast, described feeling like she was in a “comic sketch” when she met the Obamas in the Oval Office.

She kept sinking into the couch she was sitting on as they sat on sturdier chairs. Next, the chair “flicked through” the printed talking points that she had distributed to everyone in the room. Then she just “frozen” and had to “take a breather” when someone else in the meeting asked her why she was painting. Then she started crying.

“So who knows what put the interview over the top, but that’s how it went,” Sprung said.

She had planned for Mrs. Obama to stand in the portrait, “to give her some dignity”, but said the former first lady “has so much dignity that I decided to do it sitting down just because… was looking too much at her. I’m much shorter than her.

Sprung worked on the portrait for eight months, day and night, the most time she had ever spent on a single painting. She worked entirely from photographs taken at various locations on the State Floor of the White House. Getting the perfect dress was the hardest part, she said.

“The color was so beautiful and I really wanted to get the strength of the color and the light,” said Sprung, who painted late Rep. Patsy Mink, a Democrat from Hawaii, and Jeannette Rankin from Montana. , the first woman elected to Congress.

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Recent tradition, regardless of political affiliation, is for the current president to warmly welcome his immediate predecessor to the unveiling – as Bill Clinton did for George HW Bush, George W. Bush did for Clinton and Obama did it for young Bush.

Donald Trump, who has criticized almost everything about Obama and strayed from many presidential traditions, held no ceremonies for Obama. So Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, planned one for his former boss.

Obama’s portrait is slated for display in the Grand Foyer of the White House, the traditional showcase for paintings of the two most recent presidents. Portraits of Clinton and George W. Bush currently hang there.

Mrs. Obama’s portrait will likely be placed with her predecessors along the ground floor hallway of the White House, joining Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush.

McCurdy and Sprung said it was difficult to keep their work on the portraits secret. McCurdy said it wouldn’t have been a problem “if it hadn’t been for so long.” Sprung said she had to turn the portrait against the wall every time someone entered her studio in New York.

The White House Historical Association, a non-profit organization funded by private donations and the sale of books and an annual Christmas decoration, helps manage the portraiture process and since the 1960s has paid for most of those 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.

About Catharine C. Bean

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