The Historic Reason The Obamas Spent The Afternoon Back In The White House

"I think it's fair to say that every president is acutely aware that we are just temporary residents — we're renters here. We're charged with the upkeep until our lease runs out. But we also leave a piece of ourselves in this place," Barack Obama said to George W. Bush, Laura Bush, and all the other dignitaries gathered at the White House in May 2012. President Obama made his remarks during the unveiling of the Bushes' official White House portraits, when he also thanked his predecessors "for their extraordinary service to our country."


More than a decade has passed since that lighthearted event, when the current and former presidents displayed bipartisan bonhomie and joked around with each other (per The Washington Post). After Donald Trump settled into the Oval Office in 2017, however, he refused to follow tradition and host a similar unveiling event for the Obamas' portraits (per NBC News). Then COVID-19 hit, and any plans for an unveiling were put on pause even longer.

After a lengthy delay, the Obamas' official portraits have finally been revealed

"Barack and Michelle, welcome home," Joe Biden warmly greeted the former president and first lady on September 7 (per The Washington Post). It was the first time that the Obamas had entered 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue together since their departure in 2017, and the crowd was delighted to welcome them back, honoring the duo with a standing ovation (per Forbes).


"It is great to be back," the former president told Biden — his vice president for eight years — along with the guests who were assembled to get a first look at the Obamas' official portraits (per The New York Times).

Realist painter Sharon Sprung executed the portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama, while photorealist painter Robert McCurdy produced the likeness of former president Barack Obama. "I want to thank Sharon Sprung for capturing everything I love about Michelle: her grace, her intelligence, and the fact that she's fine," the former president said, according to The New York Times. "And I want to thank Robert McCurdy for taking on a much more difficult subject."

Though the portraits were created by two painters with markedly different styles, both look more contemporary than the typical official portraits hanging on White House walls.


The new portraits are realistic but modern

"I just have great respect for traditional painting and having somebody look the way they look. That's what's in it for me — the crinkle of an eye, the little noise of a lip," Sharon Sprung explained (per The New York Times). Her portrait of Michelle Obama took nine months to create — then the artist had to keep it secret for six years, which she called "infuriating."


Robert McCurdy's portrait shows Barack Obama against a stark white background. "What I love about Robert's work is that he paints people exactly the way they are, for better or worse. He captures every wrinkle on your face, every crease in your shirt," the former president said during the unveiling (per CNN). "You'll note that he refused to hide any of my gray hairs. Refused my request to make my ears smaller."

The portraits revealed were funded by the White House Historical Association. They are separate from the ones unveiled in 2018 for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

As for the next time an unveiling will take place, it's impossible to predict. Given the antagonistic nature of Joe Biden and Donald Trump's relationship, it's unclear if the president will host a ceremony for his predecessor. "We defer those questions to the White House Historical Association," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, dodging the question during a briefing, The New York Times reported. "They lead the process on official portraits for both presidents and their spouses."