Painting Michelle Obama Took 9 Months. Keeping It Secret Took 6 Years. (2023)

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Sharon Sprung, an instructor at the Art Students League of New York, is a realist painter of the old school.

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Painting Michelle Obama Took 9 Months. Keeping It Secret Took 6 Years. (1)
(Video) Painting Michelle Obama took 9 months. Keeping it secret took 6 years

When Sharon Sprung was chosen to paint Michelle Obama’s official portrait for the White House, she knew she’d have to keep it a secret — she just didn’t know for how long.

Unlike Amy Sherald’s portrait of the former first lady, commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and unveiled there in 2018, alongside Kehinde Wiley’s depiction of President Obama, Ms. Sprung’s was commissioned by the White House Historical Association to hang in the White House.

Since the Carter administration, former presidents have returned to the White House for an unveiling ceremony when their portraits are finished. But you can’t have a White House ceremony without the approval of the sitting president. And for the four years of President Trump’s administration, there was no unveiling.

Then President Biden took office — but before a ceremony could be scheduled, Covid-19 arrived. So the finished portrait, which Ms. Sprung had painted over nine months, after two White House visits with Mrs. Obama, has spent most of the last six years hidden in her Brooklyn art studio.

“Yeah, it was infuriating,” Ms. Sprung, 69, said about the delay, speaking in a phone interview from Brooklyn in August, “but there’s not much I could do about it.”

On Wednesday, President Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, unveiled the painting at the White House, alongside a portrait of former President Barack Obama by Robert McCurdy.

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It wasn’t Ms. Sprung’s first Washington unveiling, though. In 2004, the House of Representatives commissioned her to paint Jeannette Rankin, a suffrage advocate and the first woman elected to Congress, in 1917 and again in 1940. Earlier this year, Nancy Pelosi unveiled Ms. Sprung’s portrait of Patsy Takemoto Mink, Congress’s first woman of color, who was elected in 1964.

Ms. Rankin, pictured against the patterned stone floor of a congressional hallway, looks solemn as she holds up a newspaper report of her swearing-in; one of her earliest votes was against American entry into World War I. Ms. Mink, a Japanese American from Hawaii, is cheerful but busy, painted in profile against a turquoise background of abstracted flowers.

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According to Ms. Sprung, the similarity of this floral background to the background of Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Obama, who also grew up in Hawaii, was unintentional.

Also unlike Mr. Wiley or Ms. Sherald, both figurative artists with conceptual aims, Ms. Sprung is closer to a realist of the old school. Her portraits combine uncannily lifelike details with just enough painterly effect to make it impossible to forget that you’re looking at oil.

Appearing in an off-the-shoulder turquoise gown against a warm pink wall, Mrs. Obama looks intent but alluring and unmistakably herself.

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If the Wiley and Sherald portraits were reminders of everything that’s changed since the National Portrait Gallery opened to the public in 1968, Ms. Sprung’s painting is a reminder that oil paint remains the best technology for really looking at someone.

“She’s trying to capture you and your whole essence, and that humanity comes through,” says Michael Hall, executive and artistic director of the Art Students League of New York, where Ms. Sprung teaches.

Of course, all four presidential portraits are equally distinct from the millions of digital images that exist of the Obamas. “We’re using an old tradition,” says Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, “to take a snapshot of how they see themselves.”

“Anything that has a figure in it, I can identify with,” Ms. Sprung said. “I just have great respect for traditional painting and having somebody look the way they look. That’s what’s in it for me — the crinkle of an eye, the little noise of a lip. That’s what holds my interest.”

Asked why she was chosen, Ms. Sprung replied, “I didn’t ask! I didn’t want to put any shred of doubt in their mind that they picked the right person.”

Her work offers a compromise between the Obamas’ desire to innovate and the imperative to respect the White House aesthetic. As old-fashioned as Ms. Sprung’s paintings may look next to a Wiley or a Sherald, Ms. Sprung said, people in the commissioned portraiture world tend to find her own flat colors and use of pattern “too contemporary.”

But the decision to choose her might also have had something to do with her interview with the Obamas and Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Ms. Golden asked a question that Ms. Sprung said no one had ever asked her before: “Why do you paint?”

“I was quiet for a few seconds,” Ms. Sprung said, “and my eyes started filling up with tears, and I just started speaking from the heart.”

“I said that my father had died when I was 6, and all the photographs were destroyed. So I had nothing of him that was left, and remembering his face, and other people’s faces, was so embedded in my being, that that’s why I’m a portrait painter.”

Growing up in Glen Cove, N.Y., Ms. Sprung started commuting to Saturday classes at the Art Students League as a teenager. After a year at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where she found the art scene unfocused, she dropped out, moved to the city, and returned to the League, becoming an instructor there in 2004.

In 1980, she and her husband, William Astwood, a psychotherapist, moved into a Brooklyn live/work space on Atlantic Avenue, where the buildings are low and the light is good. “I painted things that were meaningful to me, mostly women, vulnerability, sensuality, color. People not in the mainstream.”

Some women were young mothers she met in the neighborhood; others were hired models. Portrait commissions started around 2007, when “people would see my paintings and say, those are beautiful, could you do me?”

Ms. Sprung makes it a point to get to know her subjects over lunch or a video conference before spending two or three sessions “photographing, talking, looking.”

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Ms. Sprung posed Mrs. Obama, moving White House furniture around, and consulted with her about skin tone, using a piece of canvas board on which she’d painted various possibilities.

She found Mrs. Obama to be very elegant, very “present and contained.” Given access to childhood photographs, Ms. Sprung found a shot of Mrs. Obama practicing ballet around age 11 or 12 and noticed the same poise and quiet determination she exemplifies as an adult.

When it was suggested, though, that it must have been unusually rewarding to paint someone like that, Ms. Sprung demurred.

“Almost everyone’s like that, you find,” she said, “when you start painting them. You fall in love with them. And then they fall out of your life.”

FAQs

What does the Obama painting mean? ›

Some see the portraits as political and historical commentary; elegant as an attempt to subvert the racist insults experienced by Obama during his presidency but vibrant enough to entice the viewer. The Obama portrait may also uphold the public image of the man himself as an intelligent, serious problem solver.

How many paintings are in the Obama portraits tour? ›

The Obama Portraits Tour features two acclaimed portraits: Kehinde Wiley's painting of President Barack Obama and Amy Sherald's portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama. There also is an eight-minute video in the exhibition. Is there reentry into the exhibition?

What nationality is Sharon Sprung? ›

Sharon Sprung is an American artist based in Brooklyn, New York.

What type of art is the Obama Hope poster? ›

According to design writer Steven Heller, the poster was inspired by social realism. Heller saw it as part of a tradition of contemporary artists drawing inspiration from political candidates and producing "posters that break the mold not only in terms of color and style but also in message and tone".

What is the purpose of presidential portraits? ›

Not only do these portraits remind us how a particular president looked, especially important before the invention of photography, but they also offer historical clues through a variety of symbols, props, or backgrounds.

Which president burned his painted portrait? ›

Theodore Roosevelt Hated His Presidential Portrait So Much He Burnt It.

Which president burned their portrait? ›

In 1902, Roosevelt detested his portrait by French artist Theobald Chartran so much that he hid it in a closet and then had it destroyed.

Who was the first woman to paint a presidential portrait? ›

First Lady Michelle Obama (painting)
First Lady Michelle Obama
Dimensions183.2 cm (72.1 in) × 152.7 cm (60.1 in) × 7 cm (2.8 in)
LocationNational Portrait Gallery
Accession No.PA/NPG.18-57
Websitenpg.si.edu/exhibition/former-first-lady-michelle-obama-artist-amy-sherald
7 more rows

What do the flowers in Obama's portrait mean? ›

About the Painting

The chrysanthemums, for example, reference the official flower of Chicago. The jasmine evokes Hawaii, where he spent the majority of his childhood, and the African blue lilies stand in for his late Kenyan father.

When were the Obama portraits painted? ›

You may be asking yourself: Didn't we already see the Obama portraits? Well, yes. In 2018, two portraits—Barack Obama's by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle Obama's by Amy Sherald—joined the National Portrait Gallery's collection.

Where are the First Lady portraits? ›

The National Portrait Gallery is well-known for our collection of presidential portraits, but we also have a comprehensive collection of the nation's first ladies.

Who designed the Obama logo? ›

The logo was designed by Chicago-based Sender LLC (a brand development and design company) on assignment from Chicago-based Mode Project (a motion design studio). The latter had been brought on board early on by David Axelrod, Obama's chief campaign strategist, although it had never done a political identity before.

What 3 presidents were impeached? ›

Three United States presidents have been impeached, although none were convicted: Andrew Johnson was in 1868, Bill Clinton was in 1998, and Donald Trump twice, in 2019 and 2021.

How many presidents have not been photographed? ›

There are no photographs for the first five United States Presidents (George Washington through James Monroe). However, there does exist a photograph of the sixth President John Quincy Adams (1767-1848, President 1825-1829).

Is a portrait a painting? ›

A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expressions are predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person.

Why was George Washington painting removed from the White House? ›

On August 24, 1814, during the War of 1812, British troops invaded Washington, D.C. First Lady Dolley Madison ordered the Washington painting to be saved, and it was taken down off the wall and sent out of harm's way by a group of individuals--Jean Pierre Sioussat, the White House steward; Paul Jennings, an enslaved ...

Why did Winston Churchill burn his portrait? ›

Graham Sutherland's portrait of Winston Churchill, commissioned by both Houses of Parliament as a tribute to Churchill on the occasion of his 80th birthday, was destroyed after his death by his wife because she hated it so much.

Did Winston Churchill's wife burn his portrait? ›

LONDON, Jan. 11—The fate of Graham Sutherland's portrait of Sir Winston Churchill, a matter of speculation for 23 years, was revealed here tonight: Sir Winston's wife destroyed it because both she and her husband disliked it. Baroness Spencer‐Churchill, the widow of Britain's World War II leader, died a month ago.

Who burnt down the White House? ›

On August 24, 1814, during the War of 1812 between the United States and England, British troops enter Washington, D.C. and burn the White House in retaliation for the American attack on the city of York in Ontario, Canada, in June 1813.

What is the oldest photo of a president? ›

Answer 1: John Quincy Adams

This image of John Quincy Adams is the earliest known photo of a US President to still exist and was taken in March 1843 when he was 75 years old and serving as a Representative of Massachusetts's 8th congressional district, 14 years after the end of his presidency.

Was the White House ever burnt? ›

That night, British forces set fire to multiple government and military buildings, including the White House (then called the Presidential Mansion), the Capitol building, as well as other facilities of the U.S. government.

Who was the first colored First Lady? ›

Frances Cleveland
Preceded byRose Cleveland (Acting)
Succeeded byCaroline Harrison
Personal details
BornFrank Clara FolsomJuly 21, 1864 Buffalo, New York, U.S.
18 more rows

Who was the first woman to stand for president? ›

Victoria Claflin Woodhull, later Victoria Woodhull Martin (September 23, 1838 – June 9, 1927), was an American leader of the women's suffrage movement who ran for President of the United States in the 1872 election.

Who is the first woman painted? ›

High society portraits of Renaissance women
noli_me_tangere_1581_lavinia_fontanaportrait_pope_gregory_xiii
Noli me Tangere, 1581 by Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) / Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, ItalyPortrait of Pope Gregory XIII (1502-85) by Lavinia Fontana / Private Collection
29 Jul 2014

What is the flower that stands for resolution? ›

Columbine

How long did it take to paint Obama's portrait? ›

Now, four years too late, McCurdy's and Sprung's 2018 paintings will hang on the wall at long last. McCurdy, known for his hyperrealism, said it took 18 months to complete Barack Obama's portrait. The result is a depiction of Barack — in photographic detail — standing against a stark white background.

How long will the Obama portraits be in Atlanta? ›

This five-city tour will travel the country from June 2021 through May 2022 and is expected to reach millions of people who might not otherwise have an opportunity to view these remarkable paintings.

Who was the second president to be photographed? ›

Dating from 1843, the photograph of President John Quincy Adams is a unique daguerreotype and was produced by artist Philip Haas just four years after Louis Daguerre's radical invention was revealed to the world.

Who was the White House photographer for Obama? ›

Peter Joseph Souza (born December 31, 1954) is an American photojournalist, the former Chief Official White House Photographer for Presidents of the United States Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama and the former director of the White House Photography Office.

Who designed the dress for Michelle Obama's portrait? ›

Michelle Obama's portrait features her in gown by Jason Wu, who designed her inaugural celebration dresses | The Independent.

Who are the artist who painted the Obamas? ›

When Robert McCurdy's and Sharon Sprung's official White House portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled Wednesday, they looked like the buttoned-up cousins of the bold portraits the National Portrait Gallery debuted in 2018. McCurdy's painting of Barack Obama is hyperrealistic and no frills.

Why is the First Lady important? ›

The spouse of the President is not elected to serve and yet, because the White House is both the residence and the office of the President, public service is inherent to the role. Traditionally, the spouse of the President served as the hostess and was in charge of all things domestic; but that role has evolved.

What power does the First Lady have? ›

The position of the first lady is not an elected one and carries only ceremonial duties. Nonetheless, first ladies have held a highly visible position in American society. The role of the first lady has evolved over the centuries. She is, first and foremost, the hostess of the White House.

Why did Amy Sherald paint Michelle Obama? ›

Mrs. Obama selected Amy Sherald, winner of the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, to create her official portrait for the museum. The artist considers the former first lady to be someone “women can relate to—no matter what shape, size, race, or color. . . .

Which president burned his portrait? ›

In 1902, Roosevelt detested his portrait by French artist Theobald Chartran so much that he hid it in a closet and then had it destroyed. He complained that it made him look more like a meek kitty than “the powerful president.” He chose artist John Singer Sargent to paint a new one that made him look more macho.

Who chooses the artist for presidential portraits? ›

The White House Historical Association commissions official portraits of the president and first lady. As is the custom, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama picked their portrait artists before leaving office.

How does sherald represent black skin in her paintings and why? ›

Based in Baltimore, Maryland, Sherald focuses on African American cultural history and the representation of the African American body. She uses a grayscale to paint skin tones as a way of challenging the concept of color as race.

Did Michelle Obama plant a garden at the White House? ›

On March 20, 2009 Michelle Obama broke ground on the largest and most expansive vegetable garden to date on the White House lawn.

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