By DARLENE SUPERVILLE, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — It has been more than a decade since President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle welcomed back George W. Bush and his wife Laura for the unveiling of their portraits at the White House, part of a popular Washington tradition decades managed to to overcome party politics.
President Joe Biden and his wife Jill will revive that ritual – after an uncomfortable and unusual hiatus in the Trump years – when they join the Obamas for the grand unveiling of their portraits before scores of friends, family and associates on Wednesday.
The Obama paintings will not look like images from the White House portrait collection to which they will be added. You were America’s first black President and First Lady.
The ceremony is also Michelle Obama’s first visit to the White House since the end of Obama’s presidency in January 2017, and only the second for Barack Obama. He was at the White House in April to mark the 12th anniversary of the health care law he signed into law in 2010.
Portrait ceremonies often give former presidents an opportunity to show off their comedic timing.
“I am pleased that my portrait brings an interesting symmetry to the White House collection. It starts and ends with a George W now,” Bush quipped at his ceremony in 2012.
Bill Clinton joked in 2004 that “until you hang your picture like this, the only artists you draw are caricaturists.”
Recent tradition, regardless of party affiliation, has resulted in the current President giving a warm welcome to his immediate predecessor at the unveiling – as Clinton did for George HW Bush, George W. Bush for Clinton and Obama for the younger Bush.
Then there was an inexplicable pause when Donald Trump failed to host Obama.
Two Trump spokespersons did not respond to emailed requests for comment about the lack of a ceremony for Obama and whether artists are working on portraits of Trump and former first lady Melania Trump.
The White House portrait collection begins with George Washington, America’s first President. Congress bought his portrait.
Other portraits of early Presidents and First Ladies often came to the White House as gifts. The White House Historical Association has paid for the paintings since the middle of the last century.
The first portraits funded by the association were of Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson, as well as John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, said Stewart McLaurin, president of the private, nonprofit organization founded by First Lady Kennedy.
Before Presidents and First Ladies leave office, the association explains the portrait process. The former President and First Lady select the artist(s) and provide guidance on how they would like to be portrayed.
“It’s really about how this President and this First Lady see themselves,” McLaurin said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The collection includes an iconic full-length portrait of Washington that adorns the East Room. It is the only piece in the White House that was in the executive mansion in November 1800, when John Adams and Abigail Adams became the first Presidents and First Ladies to reside in the White House.
Years later, First Lady Dolley Madison saved Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington from near certain perdition. She had White House staff bring it out of town before advancing British troops burned the mansion down in 1814. The painting was in storage pending the rebuilding of the White House.
Portraits of the President and First Lady are seen by millions of White House visitors, although not all are on display. Some are preserved or in storage.
The exhibits line the hallways and rooms in the mansion’s public areas, such as the ground floor and its Vermeil and China Rooms, and the State Floor, one level above, with the famous Green, Blue and Red Rooms, the East Room and State Dining Room.
Portraits of Mamie Eisenhower, Pat Nixon, Lady Bird Johnson and Lou Henry Hoover grace the Vermeil Room, along with a full length portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy. The portrait of Michelle Obama will likely accompany Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush down the first floor hallway.
The hallway on the State Floor one floor up features recent Presidents: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. The portrait of Gerald Ford and the likeness of Richard Nixon – the only President to have left office – are featured on the Grand Staircase leading to the private living quarters on the second floor.
Images of past presidents move around the White House depending on their standing with current residents. Ronald Reagan, for example, moved Thomas Jefferson and Harry S. Truman from the Cabinet Room, replacing Dwight Eisenhower and Calvin Coolidge.
In the Clinton era, portraits of Republican Party idols Richard Nixon and Reagan lost their place in the Grand Foyer and were replaced by images of Democrat heroes Franklin D. Roosevelt and Truman. Nancy Reagan temporarily reassigned Eleanor Roosevelt to a prominent location in the East Room in 1984 to celebrate her centenary.
One of the most prominent places for a portrait is above the mantelpiece in the State Dining Room, and for decades has been occupied by a painting of a seated Abraham Lincoln, supporting his chin with his hand. It was placed there by Franklin Roosevelt.
The portraits of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush hang on opposite walls in the Grand Foyer.
Clintons would be moved to make room for Barack Obamas if the White House sticks to tradition and keeps the two youngest Oval Office occupants there, McLaurin said.
“That’s up to the White House, the curators,” he said.
The association, which is funded by private donations and the sale of books and an annual White House Christmas ornament, keeps the price of the portrait well below market value because an artist experiences “it is an extraordinary honor to have their artwork permanently hung in the White House.” ‘ McLaurin said.
Details on the Obamas’ portraits remain classified until Wednesday.
Biden will be the rare president to host a former boss for the reveal; he was Obama’s Vice President. George HW Bush, who performed Ronald Reagan’s ceremony, was Reagan’s number 2.
Betty Monkman, a former White House curator, said in a 2017 podcast for the White House Historical Association that the ceremony was a “declaration of generosity” from the President and First Lady. “It’s a very warm, beautiful moment.”
The White House Portraits is one of two series of portraits of Presidents and First Ladies. The National Portrait Gallery, a Smithsonian museum, maintains its own collection and these portraits will be unveiled before the White House couple. The Obamas unveiled their museum portraits in February 2018.
Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution, said in an email that a $650,000 donation from Save America, Trump’s political action committee, was earmarked for the couple’s museum portraits in July. Two artists have been commissioned, one for each painting, and work has begun, St. Thomas said.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed.