President Joe Biden hosted former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama for the unveiling of their official portraits at the White House, calling them “two dear friends, and two great Americans.”
“Barack and Michelle, welcome home,” Biden said Wednesday at a boisterous event in the White House’s East Room.
“It’s great to be back,” Obama said later, adding that Biden became “a true partner and a true friend” as his vice president.
The ceremony was partly a celebration of the Obamas’ historic role as the first Black family to reside in the White House and partly a reunion for the former running mates — and hundreds of staffers who served across both administrations.
Biden called the portraits “a reminder for all here and now, and for those that come to power, that hope and change matters.”
The Obamas’ portraits, commissioned by the White House Historical Association, are strikingly different from many of the more staid and traditional ones they will hang alongside at the White House.
The former president’s portrait is a photo-realistic painting by the artist Robert McCurdy, who is known for his meticulously precise renderings of subjects. McCurdy’s previous works include portraits of the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos.
In the painting, the former president is dressed in a black suit with a gray tie and set against a blank white canvas. The portrait was painted from photographs taken by McCurdy during a photo session.
“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,” Obama said. “He refused to hide any of my gray hairs. He refused my request to make my ears smaller.”
Obama said that approach appealed to him “because presidents so often get airbrushed, even take on a mythical status, especially after you’ve gone and people forget all the stuff they didn’t like about you.”
The paintings are different from the large-scale renderings of the Obamas at the National Portrait Gallery, which became tourist sensations following their unveiling in 2018.
The former first lady’s portrait depicts her wearing a blue ball gown while seated on a sofa in the White House’s Red Room. Her portrait, also based on photographs, was painted by Brooklyn-based artist Sharon Sprung.
Sprung’s previous work includes a portrait of late Hawaii Congresswoman Patsy Mink that is hung in the U.S. Capitol as part of a series honoring female trailblazers.
The former president called the portrait of his wife “stunning.”
“I want to thank Sharon Sprung for capturing everything I love about Michelle,” he said. “Her grace, her intelligence, and the fact that she’s fine,” he said to applause.
Michelle Obama thanked her husband for his “spicy remarks” before taking a more serious tone about the meaning of American democracy, including some subtle digs at former President Donald Trump over his refusal to accept his loss in the 2020 election.
“We hold an inauguration to ensure a peaceful transition of power,” she said. “Once our time is up, we move on. And all that remains in this hallowed place are our good efforts and these portraits, portraits that connect our history to the present day.”
It was the second time Obama had returned to the White House since leaving. He attended an event in April of this year marking the 12th anniversary of his landmark health care law, the Affordable Care Act. During that visit, and again on Wednesday, he had lunch with Biden, just as the pair did at least once a week during Obama’s two terms.
Michelle Obama had not been back at the White House since her husband’s presidency ended in 2017.
The event at the White House was intended as a signal of a return to normalcy after the event — an occasion for a president to honor his immediate predecessor dating back to the Carter administration — was shelved during Trump’s presidency.
Obama hosted President George W. Bush for his portrait unveiling in May 2012, and Bush had former President Bill Clinton at the White House for his unveiling in June 2004.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined Tuesday to say whether Biden would also seek to host a portrait unveiling for Trump, who has indicated he plans to seek the presidency again in 2024.
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