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White House reveals official portraits of Barack, Michelle Obama

President Biden praised Barack Obama as one of “the most consequential presidents in our history” as he unveiled the ex-commander in chief and Michelle Obama’s official portraits in a long-delayed ceremony at the White House.

“There are a few people I’ve ever known with more integrity, decency and moral courage than Barack Obama,” Biden said on Wednesday in the East Room — packed with alumni of the Obama administration — as the former first family looked on. 

“These portraits have a special significance because, as Joe mentioned, they will hang in the White House alongside portraits of other presidents and first ladies dating back to George and Martha,” Obama, flanked by his wife, remarked.

Obama’s portrait, by artist Robert McCurdy, shows the former president sporting a black suit and grey tie. The painting was created from photographs taken of Obama by McCurdy, which the White House said the artist preferred over working from sketches based on sittings.

The white backgrounds of McCurdy’s portraits “allow the viewer to establish a relationship with the subject,” the White House said, “the focus shifts from the celebrity-status of the individual to the viewer’s direct response to that individual as a human being.”

Obama lauded McCurdy’s work, saying, “What I love about Robert 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. You’ll note that he refused to hide any of my gray hairs, refused my request to make my ears smaller,” Obama said.

“He also talked me out of wearing a tan suit,” Obama cracked to laughs, a reference to an infamous 2014 sartorial choice that made headlines.

Sharon Sprung painted the image of Michelle Obama that will hang in the White House. “By methodically manipulating the layers of paint, she works to mimic the complexity of real life in her portrait compositions,” the White House said in a statement about the portraits. 

While typically not an eyebrow-raising custom, the tradition of a first-term president unveiling the official portrait of their immediate predecessor was a precedent-shattering casualty of former President Trump’s time in office. Trump reportedly declined to host Obama — his longtime political nemesis — for such a ceremony during his term. Obama was also opposed to participating in the tradition with Trump, according to news reports.

Michelle Obama struck a serious tone while addressing the crowd gathered.

“It’s still a big awkward for me to stand in this historic space, see this big, beautiful painting staring back at me,” Obama said.

Growing up in Chicago, 58-year-old Obama said, “I never could have imagined that any of this would be part of my story.”

“But even if it’s all still a bit awkward for me, I do recognize why moments like these are important. — why all of this is absolutely necessary,” she said.

“Traditions like this matter — not just for those of us who hold these positions, but for everyone participating in and watching our democracy,” Obama said, without mentioning Trump by name.

“You see the people that made their voices heard with their vote,” she continued.

“And once our time is up, we move on. And all that remains in this hallowed place are our good efforts, and these portraits,” Obama said.

The first public view of the Obamas’ official portraits also faced further delays beyond the Trump presidency due to COVID-19. The pair of paintings was originally expected to be revealed last year, but the ceremony was reportedly postponed because of the pandemic.

The event marked the first trip back to the White House for Michelle Obama since she was first lady. The former president had returned to the White House in April — his first visit since Biden took office — to promote the Affordable Care Act.

The Obamas’ portraits will have a permanent home at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week ahead of the ceremony. The artwork, she said, “will hang on the walls of the White House forever as reminders of the power of hope and change.”

“A girl like me, she was never supposed to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolley Madison,” Michelle Obama said in the moments after her portrait was unveiled. “She was never supposed to live in this house and she definitely wasn’t supposed to serve as first lady.”

“What we’re looking at today — a portrait of a biracial kid with an unusual name, and the daughter of a water pump operator and a stay-at-home mom — what we are seeing is a reminder that there’s a place for everyone in this country,” she said.

This story was updated at 4:04 p.m.

Source: The Hill

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