And, Obama joked during Wednesday’s unveiling, no tan suit.
“We’re not looking for a gestural moment,” McCurdy said in a recent interview with the White House Historical Society, which acquires and funds official portraits of presidents and first ladies. “We’re looking for a more meditative or transcendent moment.”
Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and light gray tie with his hands in his pockets, Obama gazes at the viewer from the canvas with an enigmatic expression. Nothing else disturbs the composition.
“What I love about Robert’s work is that he portrays people as they are, good or bad. He captures every wrinkle on your face, every crease in your shirt,” Obama said at Wednesday’s ceremony. “You will notice that he refused to cover any of my gray hairs. He refused my request to make my ears smaller. And he talked me out of wearing a brown dress.”
“You feel like you’re making a face-to-face, a connection,” Obama said. “That fascinates me because presidents often wind up. They take on a mythic status, especially after you’re gone, and people forget all the things they didn’t like about you.”
According to the artist, after McCurdy’s initial portrait was taken, the former president had no say in the final portrait.
“Part of my process,” he said, “is that the sitter has nothing to say about what the painting looks like. They are completely outside the process.” “He was open to it and accepted the process, so he never saw the films we worked on.”
“I felt this confidence came from her, you do your thing, I’m going to do my thing, I’m going to trust you with your thing, and I think sometimes the portrait works better that way. She didn’t contribute that much. Rather than put herself forward,” Sprung told the Historical Society.
Like her husband’s portrait, Michelle Obama’s portrait is painted in a unique style that breaks the mold of traditional portraits hung in the White House. Wearing a powder blue off-the-shoulder gown designed by Jason Wu, she sits on a sofa from the Red Room of the White House, posing against a terra-cotta backdrop. Like the former president, he looks directly at the viewer from outside the frame.
“Your work is unique, but it’s your essence, your soul, the way you saw me, the way we connected, that shows in this beautiful work,” Michelle Obama said during the opening ceremony.
The portraits are historic in another way: they capture the first black president and first lady.
“They look different. But I don’t think I have to explain that to people. I think people understand that,” McCurdy said.
When the Obamas selected artists for the previous portraits that hang at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, they chose black painters — Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald — who were still emerging in the field at the time.
The painters behind the official White House portraits are both established artists. McCourty’s signature hyper-photorealistic portraits set against white backgrounds have painted the likes of Jeff Bezos, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Jane Goodall.
Sprung has had a long career in figurative painting, including portraits for Congress, and has ties to past White House portraits: As a young man, he developed an artistic relationship with Aaron Schickler, who painted the iconic White House portraits of John F. Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan.
“I don’t want it to look like it was done in 2013, or whatever, I want it to look like it was done in this time and place,” Sprung said in a video with the White House Historical Society.
The artist selection process began while the Obamas were in the White House, including in-person interviews in the Oval Office. Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, sat down with Sprung for an interview with the couple.
Then-President Obama and McCourty discussed the painting process, which involved releasing control of the final product to the artist and the connection between the viewer and the subject that he aimed for in each of his paintings.
“I think that directness really appealed to him,” McCurdy said.
When Sprung visited the Oval Office during the Obamas’ time in the White House, he brought with him some early sketches of the then-first lady to give the couple a sense of direction for the conversation about the portrait.
“He picked a couple that he liked, and he picked a couple that he liked, and it was very different in mood. I found that very fascinating, but it made me feel both of them,” Sprung said.
McCurdy begins his process by taking about 100 photos of his subject against a white background. After choosing one to paint, the rest of the images are cleared and painting begins over a period of 12-18 months.
All Obama had to do, McCurdy said, was hold on to his sign and not move.
“He did a great job,” McCurdy said. He said the former president was “charming” and “very presentable”.
When Sprung arrived at the White House to sit with Michelle Obama, she decided to leave her paint on — “I didn’t want to leave my mark” — but instead photographed her and chatted with the Obamas’ dogs barking. meadow.
He explained in an interview with the White House Historical Society.
Sprung is shorter than Michelle Obama; Her initial plan to paint the First Lady standing up — as in the official portraits of Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan — changed when she realized she was looking at her rather than at her level.
“I’m going to position her to give her a certain dignity — but she doesn’t need dignity. She has so much dignity that I decided to sit down and do it,” Sprung said.
Since McCurdy worked on a portrait of President Obama, it was challenging to completely cover the project. He did not work with assistants, but those who helped print photographs or entered his studio were sworn to secrecy.
He had no additional sessions with the former president. Instead, during the 18-month painting process, the subject became less of a person and more of a project.
“They become a year, a year and a half later, and it becomes something like a technical issue. I don’t feel like I’m really getting to know them because I’m working with them on canvas,” he said.
For Sprung, the portrait of Michael Obama is the longest he’s ever worked on a painting: eight months.
“I worked on it day and night, I said good morning to her, I said good night to her,” she said. The most difficult detail, Sprung said, was not on her face or hands or any other part of her body, but in her clothing.
McCurdy’s challenge was to create a moment “where there is no time.”
“There’s no before, no after. The moment stays the same for a long time, like a bell that keeps ringing. And it’s a way of locking the viewer into that moment,” he said.