EEven after all these years, she admitted, Michelle Obama still feels a bit weird and uncomfortable inside the White House. “Growing up on Euclid Avenue [on Chicago’s south side]“I never could have imagined that all of this would be part of my story.
Yet, starting Wednesday, her face will grace the walls of America’s most famous address for as long as it exists and presidents still call it home. In their first visit as a couple to the White House since leaving in 2017, she and former President Barack Obama unveiled their official portraits during a ceremony in the East Room.
While Oliver Cromwell wanted to be painted with warts and all, Barack Obama admitted he asked artist Robert McCurdy for some enhancements – but to no avail. “You’ll notice he refused to hide my gray hair,” he said. “Refused my request to make my ears smaller. He also talked me out of wearing a beige suit.
Accordingly, McCurdy – whose past subjects have included Nelson Mandela, Jeff Bezos, Toni Morrison, Muhammad Ali and Neil Armstrong – depicted the former president standing expressionless in a black suit against a white background, as different as that might be from the version by Kehinde Wiley for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery of Obama floating in vegetation and flowers.
Meanwhile, Sharon Sprung painted Michelle Obama sitting on a couch in the Red Room of the White House wearing a light blue formal dress. Her husband thanked the artist “for capturing everything I love about Michelle: her grace, her intelligence and the fact that she is fine.”
At that, Michelle looked half-satisfied, half-embarrassed as the audience, filled with nostalgic Obama alumni and Joe Biden officials, laughed and shouted.
The unveiling rekindled a bipartisan tradition held a decade ago, but this being the Obamas, no portrait is a mere punchline or just a cold, lonely beautiful piece of art. It is also a metaphor for America and tells its story. Hearing them make remarks after Biden was a reminder that while the current president speaks in prose, the Obamas speak in poetry.
As first lady for eight years, Michelle observed one day that she woke up every morning in a house built by slaves. On Wednesday, she became the first African-American woman inscribed for posterity in a first lady portrait. She acknowledged that she had never felt comfortable in the role of a political symbol – but understands its importance for future generations.
“To me, this day isn’t just about what happened,” she said, wearing braids, a painting of founding father and slave owner George Washington over her left shoulder. “It’s also about what could happen because a girl like me, she was never meant to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolley Madison. She was never meant to live in that house, and she certainly wasn’t supposed to serve as first lady.
Someone in the audience shouted, “We love you, Michelle!” There was a spontaneous round of applause. Barack, standing to his right, suddenly looked moved.
Watched by her mother, Marian Robinson, in the front row, Michelle described the portraits of “a biracial child with an unusual name” and “the daughter of a water pump operator and a stay-at-home mom” as a demonstration that people do not need to earn a lot of money or belong to a certain group, class or religion to fit in.
“Because as Barack said, if we can find ourselves together on the walls of the most famous address in the world, then, again, it is so important for every young person who doubts himself to believe he can too. That’s what this country is all about.”
Indeed, Michelle insisted in a voice quivering with emotion, the day was not about her or her husband, or even portraits. “It’s about telling that fuller story, a story that includes every American in every corner of the country so that our children and grandchildren can see something more for themselves.
“And although some people would have us believe that this story has lost its luster, that division and discrimination and all that may have dimmed its light, I still know, deep in my heart, that what we share as my husband keeps saying is so much bigger than what we don’t.
She added: “Our democracy is so much stronger than our differences, and this little girl on the south side is blessed beyond measure to have felt the truth of this fuller story throughout her life – never again. than today.”
Such pardon notes seemed like stark proof that Michelle Obama remains the anti-Donald Trump, the living antithesis of his dark nativist outlook and administration run by privileged white men. They were an open invitation for dreamers of “Michelle for President”, although she was always adamant, it will not happen. And they argued that these two beautiful and fragile paintings will prove more valuable than anything by Rembrandt or Van Gogh.
‘Telling that fuller story’: Michelle and Barack on their White House portraits