arack and Michelle Obama returned to the White House on Wednesday for the unveiling of their official portraits.
The former president is depicted standing expressionless against a white background while his wife is seen seated on a sofa in the Red Room wearing a formal light blue dress.
“Barack and Michelle, welcome home,” current president Joe Biden said before he invited the Obamas to the stage to unveil the portraits. Some in the audience gasped, others applauded.
“It’s great to be back,” Mr Obama said, praising Mr Biden — his old vice president — as someone who became a “true partner and a true friend”.
The artist whom Mr Obama selected to paint his portrait says the “stripped down” style of his works helps create an “encounter” between the person in the painting and the person looking at it.
Robert McCurdy likes to present his subjects without any facial expression and standing against a white background, which is how America’s 44th and first Black president will be seen here for posterity, in a black suit and gray tie. Michelle Obama, meanwhile, chose artist Sharon Sprung for her portrait.
Mr Biden and his wife Jill had invited Mr Obama and the former first lady back to the White House – for what was a rare occasion since he left office in January 2017.
“And we’re doing the same thing with these paintings,” Mr McCurdy said on a podcast. “We’re telling as little about the sitter as possible so that the viewer can project onto them.”
The artist works from a photograph of his subjects, selected from hundreds of images. He spends a year to 18 months on each portrait and said he knows he’s done “when it stops irritating me”.
Ms Sprung, who also was interviewed for the podcast, described feeling as though she was in a “comedy sketch” when she met with the Obamas in the Oval Office.Recent tradition, no matter the political affiliation, has seen the current president genially hosting his immediate predecessor for the unveiling — as Bill Clinton did for George HW Bush, George W Bush did for Mr Clinton and Mr Obama did for the younger Mr Bush.
As 2016-20 president Donald Trump, a critic of Mr Obama, held no such ceremony, Mr Biden decided to schedule one for his former boss.