Meet the Artists Who Painted Obama’s White House Portraits
The Obamas reveal their portraits and it looks like a meeting at the White House
But on closer inspection, it’s clear that relatively conventional styles belie strong artistic visions. Informed by McCurdy’s meticulous process, which he compares to “making the world’s shortest film”, and Sprung’s passion for painting, which she called “pushing out puddles of this almost living substance”, these portraits aspire to more than faithful representations for posterity. They aim to make the former president and first lady feel present — to make their portrayals as accessible as the Obamas themselves.
Their public debut is a long time coming – the orders have been secret for six years. Handpicked by the Obamas with the help of Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, McCurdy and Sprung were hired in 2016 after a months-long interview process.
Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, said the portraits were particularly expressive. “With our first presidents, Americans didn’t know what they looked like, so they depended on paintings,” he said. “Now we’re saturated with imagery,” so these portraits don’t just show the Obamas, “they’re a snapshot of how the president and first lady see each other.”
A traditional but necessary nod to goodwill in new Obama portraits
For McCurdy, 69, the portrait of Barack Obama is not at all a “portrait”. It is a meeting place. His subject, he says, is not the model, but his gaze.
“I don’t even call them portraits,” McCurdy, who is based in New York, said in a phone interview. “My paintings aim to create an encounter between two people. We try to achieve a moment where there is a personal connection between him and the person looking at him.
Anyone who has visited the National Portrait Gallery will know this kind of encounter. The museum has several works by McCurdy in its collection – of Toni Morrison, Jeff Bezos, the Dalai Lama and others posing mostly expressionless against stark white backdrops.
McCurdy’s artistic training dates back to high school. He attended Camp Hill, a school in Pennsylvania that allows students to major in art, and he later studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. McCurdy said he was influenced by minimalism, the predominant art movement during his formative years, and for two decades he painted in an abstract style.
Then one day he said, “I felt like I was figured [paintings of people] was right outside the door saying, ‘Whatever you do in there, I could do better.’ ”
In the stark portraits McCurdy creates today, these early influences are evident. His works have a mechanical quality and align in spirit with the industrial minimalism of Donald Judd and the simplicity of Ellsworth Kelly, who is one of his favorite artists. “If I start doing gesture lines and creating movement in the piece, then I start telling the viewer how to think,” McCurdy said. “I try to create as many opportunities as it is an interactive experience for the viewer.”
When McCurdy met Obama in 2016, they talked about the artist’s strict process. He only spends a few hours with his subjects, during which he takes dozens of photos of them looking directly at the camera without gesture or emotion.. All the photos are destroyed, he said, except for one that McCurdy says captures a timeless moment, with no before or after. He works from this photo for 12 to 18 months, nine hours a day, rendering every hair and every pore to painful perfection.
Obama sought out McCurdy for the portrait, which McCurdy says is rare. His only other commission is a portrait of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) When he contacts subjects he wants to paint, they sometimes say no.
“We are in the era of Photoshop where we make everything beautiful. We are not used to having all our flaws and being a real human being,” he said. “The people who have chosen to do this are extremely brave.”
As to why Obama wanted such an honest rendering? “My impression is that he never tries to be anything other than who he is. He always tried to make a real connection with people,” McCurdy said.
Here Are Presidents Who Hated Their Official White House Portraits
Surely that was Sprung’s experience. When the artist visited the White House in 2016 as a candidate for the official commission (she was considered for both portraits), she brought some printed talking points. Obama chased them away. He just wanted to have a conversation, she said in a phone interview.
What followed was perhaps more emotional and honest than Sprung, 69, was prepared for. When Golden asked her why she was painting, Sprung burst into tears and told the Conservative and the Obamas about the loss of her father when she was just 6 – a tragedy that led her to the art.
After her death, she did not speak for a year. “From then on, I think my orientation was to observe things and try to understand what was going on around me,” she said.
“When you live in a family with a lot of stress and trauma, people don’t tell the truth, so reading people’s faces became necessary for me to function.”
Sprung has been an artist since those difficult childhood days in Glen Cove, NY She remembers doing illustrations of her mother getting ready to go on dates. At age 16, Sprung began traveling to Manhattan on Saturdays to attend the Art Students League, where she now teaches. She remembers being inspired by the diverse faces she saw around the city – a stark contrast to her homogenous hometown.
“Where I grew up, every house was the same. The lawns were the same. It was just repeat, repeat, repeat,” she said. “Entering the city was this wonderful world where you saw all these faces and everyone was different.”
At 19, Sprung dropped out of Cornell University to pursue art full-time, a decision that isolated her from her family. “I really had no choice at that point but to succeed, and I had to do it quickly because I had no money or support,” she said. She wrote to artists she admired and met Aaron Shikler, who coincidentally had painted official portraits of Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan and former President John F. Kennedy.
Sprung describes his career as a “slow rise”. The same gallery, Gallery Henoch in New York, has exhibited her work for four decades (she is presenting a solo exhibition there in October). She didn’t begin to feel like she had truly “made it” until she was hired to paint portraits honoring congresswomen – first, Jeannette Rankin, whom she painted at the early 2000s, and later Patsy Mink.
“I felt very empowered by it,” she said. “I painted women I admired, who took risks, had guts, who succeeded the hard way.”
Sprung is an evocative painter, and her rich, gestural work reflects her love of oil paint, which she describes as “sensual” and “almost alive.” She painted lonely, brooding women and bright-eyed children. Her portrayal of Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, was so striking it brought Rankin’s nephew to tears.
For nine months, Sprung toiled over the portrait of Michelle Obama. She began by sketching the first lady in the White House, then worked on the painting in her Brooklyn studio. Obama visited Sprung’s home to approve the final piece.
The portrait became so real to her that she found herself saying hello and goodnight to the first lady’s likeness, even asking her for help with the painting.
Sprung said she felt an artistic freedom while working because it was clear the first lady trusted her. Obama did not ask for reference photos or offer commentary throughout the process. “I could express myself because no one was looking over my shoulder and saying, ‘Oh, I don’t like my eyebrows,'” Sprung said.
The final portrait shows Obama in a blue dress on a red couch and is rendered in a style that Sprung calls “contemporary realism” for its bold, modern colors. “I think I have an idea of who she is,” Sprung said of the former first lady. “Not with words. I couldn’t describe it. It’s different, a kind of intimate knowledge.