Michelle Obama: White House portraits tell 'fuller story' of America

Former first lady Michelle Obama applauds as her White House portrait, by artist Sharon Sprung, is unveiled on Wednesday. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
1 of 7 | Former first lady Michelle Obama applauds as her White House portrait, by artist Sharon Sprung, is unveiled on Wednesday. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo

Sept. 7 (UPI) -- Former first lady Michelle Obama said Wednesday the White House portraits of her and former President Barack Obama reflect a "fuller story" of America.

"It's not about blood or pedigree or wealth, it's a place where everyone should have a fair shot," she said at an event to unveil the portraits on Wednesday. "This day is not about me or Barack or these portraits. It's about telling that fuller story, a story that includes every single American in every corner of the country."


The portrait unveiling traditionally would've happened years ago, but Barack Obama's successor, Donald Trump, refused to do it.

Barack Obama's portrait was painted by artist Robert McCurdy. Sharon Sprung painted Michelle Obama's.

At the unveiling, Barack Obama joked with President Joe Biden, his former vice president, but also offered earnest praise.


"Joe, it's America's good fortune to now have you as president. You have guided us through some perilous times. hanks to your decency and thanks to your strength , maybe most of all because of your faith in democracy and the American people, America is better off."

The former president said the portraits have a special significance because they will hang alongside all American presidents.

"When future generations walk these halls and look as these portraits I hope they see us and think if we could do it, maybe they can too," he said.

Michelle Obama said her portrait reminds her of how far she came to the position of first lady.

"Believe it or not, it is still odd for me to be standing here looking at that portrait. Growing up on Euclid Avenue, I didn't imagine that this could be part of my story."

The portraits show "a biracial kid with an unusual name and the daughter of a water pump operator and stay-at-home mom," she said.

The White House is also special to the Obamas because they raised their two daughters there, she said.

Barack Obama joked that the thing he misses most from the White House is not Air Force One, although he said he does miss that. He also drew laughs when he said the portrait artist refused to hide his gray hair or his big ears.


But he said what he truly misses most from the White House is working with a staff trying to do their utmost to make America better.

"It's the chance that I had to stand shoulder to shoulder with all of you -- to witness so many good people working tirelessly every day to make the world better," he said.

Barack Obama last visited the White House in April, when he ribbed Biden a bit and called him "Vice President Biden" to a chorus of laughter. Then, he visited to mark the 12th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act.

Biden served as Barack Obama's vice president for two terms and the two formed a close partnership "through the highs and lows of the job and of life," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a briefing Tuesday.

"President Biden and Dr. [Jill] Biden are honored to have former President Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama back to the White House for the unveiling of their portraits, which will hang on the walls of the White House forever as reminders of the power of hope and change," Jean-Pierre added.

Michelle Obama's visit Wednesday was her first return to the White House since her final day as first lady on Jan. 20, 2017.


It was a rare occasion when a former vice president hosts the portrait unveiling ceremony for the president they served under. George H.W. Bush, who served under Ronald Reagan, was the last former veep to do so.

The White House has portraits of every president dating back to George Washington.

Congress purchased Washington's portraits and those of other early presidents and first ladies were given to the White House as gifts. In 1965, former first lady Jackie Kennedy established the White House Historical Association, which has paid for the paintings ever since.

Portraits of former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush hang on opposing walls in the Grand Foyer.

Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, said Clinton's portrait would likely be relocated and replaced with Obama's because tradition calls for putting the most recent former presidents' portraits in the Grand Foyer.

In addition to the official White House portraits, each president and first lady also have portraits commissioned as part of the "America's Presidents" exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

The Obamas' Smithsonian portraits were unveiled at the museum in 2018. The paintings by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald drew somewhat mixed reactions for their non-traditional styles and bold colors.


The Smithsonian Institution said last month that a $650,000 donation from Trump's Save America political action committee had been earmarked for portraits of the former president and first lady Melania Trump.

Two artists have been commissioned to paint the portraits, but their names have not been released.

According to tradition, Biden would be the one to welcome Trump back to the White House for the unveiling of his portrait in 2024, if tradition is followed. But little about the Trump presidency was traditional.

"We defer those questions to the White House Historical Association," Jean-Pierre said. "They lead the process on official portraits for both presidents and their spouses.

"So that question ... lies with them."

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