You may be asking yourself: Didn’t we already see the Obama portraits? Well, yes. In 2018, two portraits—Barack Obama’s by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle Obama’s by Amy Sherald—joined the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. But former presidents and their spouses typically commission two portraits each: One is added to the gallery’s collection, and the other is kept in the White House.
Traditionally, presidents’ White House portraits are introduced in a ceremony held by their successors: Before this week, the last White House portrait ceremony that took place was in 2012, when then-President Obama unveiled the portraits of George W. Bush and Laura Bush. In a deviation from custom, former President Donald Trump held no such ceremony for the Obamas. On Wednesday, the tradition returned in a ceremony held by President Joe Biden.
The Obamas caused a stir in 2018 with the news that, for their first round of portraits, they opted for artists who intentionally break from traditional portraiture conventions. Those sensational works are currently touring museums across the country. Their selections for the White House portraits are no less groundbreaking: Barack Obama commissioned Robert McCurdy, and Michelle Obama commissioned Sharon Sprung. So, who are these artists?
When you see a Robert McCurdy portrait for the first time, you may not realize it’s a painting at first glance. The 70-year-old artist, originally from Pennsylvania, is a master of photorealism—meaning that he tries to replicate a photograph as closely as possible. Over the years, McCurdy has developed a distinct artistic process and style for his portraits. He begins by photographing his subjects, sometimes taking over 100 snapshots to capture them as he wants: standing neutrally, gazing at the viewer through the camera. Then he selects a photograph and renders it life-size onto a canvas. In the end, his subjects jump out against a stark, white background, painted in as much detail as you can glean in a photograph.
Previously, McCurdy has captured influential people such as Toni Morrison, Nelson Mandela, Jane Goodall and the Dalai Lama, and his work is frequently on display at the National Portrait Gallery. Barack Obama’s portrait, done in his signature style, is McCurdy’s latest addition to his collection.
The former president was already on the list of people McCurdy wanted to paint, the artist tells Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, on the White House 1600 Sessions podcast. “When this project came up,” says McCurdy, “it was just perfect because it saved us the trouble of having to ask him.”
Though he says he is honored to have been selected to paint Obama’s portrait, the artist avoids being pinned down as a portraitist. The subjects of his paintings are not the people in them, he tells the podcast, but rather “the thing that happens in between the sitter and the viewer.”
Sharon Sprung, a 69-year-old artist who resides in New York, says in the podcast interview that she was “joyous” to hear that she was one of the artists being considered to paint Michelle Obama. The artist has built a career for herself creating oil paintings, primarily emotional portraits of women juxtaposed against brightly colored backgrounds.
Her work has included an acclaimed series on single mothers in Brooklyn; a 2004 commission to paint Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in Congress; and a 2022 commission to paint Patsy Takemoto Mink, the first woman of color to serve in Congress. Like McCurdy, Sprung has also seen her work featured on the National Portrait Gallery’s walls: Her 2006 painting of a waitress at a bistro she frequented was a finalist in the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. The artist also teaches at the Art Students League of New York.
Sprung’s portrait of Obama shows her sitting on a sofa in the White House’s Red Room, wearing a strapless blue gown designed by Jason Wu. “I was going to do her standing to give it a certain dignity, but she doesn’t need dignity,” Sprung says in the podcast. “She has so much dignity that I decided to do it sitting.”
To complete the portrait, Sprung tells the podcast that she worked “day and night” for eight months. “I knew it was done when she started to breathe,” she says. “That’s my goal with portrait painting, is when the person starts to be alive to me and I can interact with them, then I know I’m close.”