What to Know About the Artists Who Painted Barack and Michelle Obama's Official White House Portraits

·6 min read
Mr. Obama's artist Caption: Artist Robert McCurdy at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s 2019 gala. Credits: Ryan Kobane/BFA for S
Mr. Obama's artist Caption: Artist Robert McCurdy at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s 2019 gala. Credits: Ryan Kobane/BFA for S

Max Burkhalter/the Art Students League of New York; Ryan Kobane/BFA Sharon Sprung (left), Robert McCurdy

More than five years after President Barack Obama left office, the official White House portraits of him and former first lady Michelle Obama have been unveiled — and with the unveiling comes the addition of two world-class artists to the history books.

As is tradition, the artists creating the portraits are kept anonymous until the unveiling, not only to keep the pressure off them as they fine-tune the paintings, but to add to the allure of the big reveal.

So along with the Wednesday reveal of the portraits — which will hang permanently in the presidential residence and are separate from the National Portrait Gallery paintings that the Obamas revealed in 2018 — was the identity of the artists behind them: Robert McCurdy and Sharon Sprung.

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Robert McCurdy

McCurdy — the artist behind the painting of the 44th U.S. president — specializes in photo-realistic portraits in which the subject is notably expressionless and stands before a stark white backdrop.

The goal of his work, he says in a new interview with the White House Historical Association, is to create an image in which the subject of a painting is "the thing that happens in between the sitter and the viewer."

He's painted a number of high-profile figures in the past, from Jeff Bezos to the Dalai Lama. Obama was among those who he planned to invite to sit for a portrait — until the former president asked him first.

"Obama was on the list we would have invited anyways," McCurdy told the historical association. "So when this project came up, it was just perfect because it saved us the trouble of having to ask him."

Robert McCurdy
Robert McCurdy

Paul Morigi/Invision/AP/Shutterstock Robert McCurdy

Obama, McCurdy said, was "charming" when he came to the artist's studio to be photographed for what would eventually be turned into the painted portrait.

"He was very present and easy to work with. We had everything we needed to get it done," McCurdy said.

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As he does with all his subjects, McCurdy says he did have some direction to give the former president.

"This is the speech that everybody gets when they sit for me: To look directly into the lens. To not smile. Not gesture. And just hold into that moment, again where we're trying to extend time rather than slice it like a photograph," he said.

As McCurdy explained in the interview with the historical association, his portrait of Obama is meant not to be "gestural," but to be "meditative or transcendent."

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And while his will be the Official White House portrait of Obama, McCurdy said, "I don't think of my paintings as portraits. I think of them as paintings with people in them."

Working on one piece at a time, McCurdy spends some 12-18 months perfecting each piece before it's complete. And how does he know when it's ready? "When it stops irritating me," he said.

Sharon Sprung

In a separate interview on the podcast, Sprung said she was "joyous" to receive news that she was being considered to paint the portrait of the former first lady.

The first time she met the couple for an introductory interview, however, did not go as planned.

"I was in the Oval Office, I was reading Gone Girl while I was waiting to keep me occupied, so I wasn't so nervous ... And then he walked me, President Obama very graciously walked me into the Oval Office," Sprung said.

One inside the iconic room, Sprung said she felt like she was part of a "comedy sketch," as she watched the first couple sit in two high back chairs, while she sat on a nearby couch that nearly dwarfed her.

"I'm much shorter than either of the Obamas, and I just kept sinking into this couch thinking, 'Oh, this is not good, I hope they can see me,'" she said.

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NEW PICS: Mrs. Obama's artist Photo by Max Burkhalter Courtesy the Art Students League of New York
NEW PICS: Mrs. Obama's artist Photo by Max Burkhalter Courtesy the Art Students League of New York

Max Burkhalter/the Art Students League of New York Sharon Sprung

The conversation, however, flowed well, with Sprung showing the couple some preliminary drawings she had done of Mrs. Obama. The former president and former first lady each picked their favorites — choices that differed — which allowed Sprung a window into their own aesthetics.

"And I found that really fascinating, but it gave me a sense of both of them, what they picked. And we talked. It was very collegial and very easy to talk with both of them."

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The conversation ended with Sprung growing emotional after being asked why she loved to paint.

"At that point, I just went still, and I had a gasp for air a little bit," she said. "You know, when you're about to reveal something, you don't know if you really want to reveal to the public. So tears started mounting in my eyes. So I started crying. So who knows what put the interview over the top, but that's how it went."

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Once awarded the project, Sprung said there were a few slight challenges — like her request to move furniture from the Red Room to the Blue Room to access better light, which "caused a bit of a disturbance at the White House"; or the rigid confidentiality agreement that required her to turn the painting to face the wall anytime someone stopped by her studio.

Once she was able to photograph the former first lady, Sprung said the moment was effortless, with the two talking about their shared love of dogs during the sitting.

The end result, which features Mrs. Obama sitting down on a sofa and showing off her world-famous arms, came about as a suggestion from the artist.

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"I was going to do her standing to give it a certain dignity, but she doesn't need dignity. She has so much dignity that I decided to do it sitting," Sprung said.

Once Mrs. Obama's stylist came by to rearrange her dress, "it just clicked."

The resulting portrait, which Sprung worked on "day and night" for eight months, almost became a part of her family.

"I said 'Good morning,' to her and I said, 'Good night' to her,' " she said. "And I knew it was done when she started to breathe. 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."