In a Sign of a Divided America, President Trump Will Not Unveil Barack Obama’s New Portrait in the White House Anytime Soon

For the first time in decades, the former and sitting presidents will not meet for the debut of the official artwork.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the stage as he attends an Obama Foundation event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 13 December 2019. (Photo by Zahim Mohd/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the stage as he attends an Obama Foundation event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 13 December 2019. (Photo by Zahim Mohd/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Breaking with a tradition that goes back more than forty years, President Trump will not welcome his predecessor, Barack Obama, into the East Wing for the grand reveal of his White House portrait. Amid an escalating war of words between the current and former presidents, NBC News reports that neither wants to take part in the ritual. Portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama will therefore likely not be installed until Trump is out of office.

The White House displays portraits of every president since George Washington. These official artworks are created through a highly specific process: they are commissioned by the White House Historical Association, a privately funded heritage organization, with the artists being selected personally by the former president and first lady. When complete, the Association donates the paintings to the White House, whose curator places them.

According to NBC, the artists for the Obama portraits were selected in early 2017, though because of a confidentiality agreement, the details remain unknown. Recent White House portraits have been by John Howard Sanden, who painted both George W. Bush and Laura Bush in 2012; Simmie Knox, who painted Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton in 2001; Herbert E. Abrams, who painted George H.W. Bush in 1994; and Chas Fagen, who painted Barbara Bush, also in 1994.

Presidents Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr.'s portraits on display on the White House website, with a photograph in place of Obama's portrait.

Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush’s paintings portraits displayed on the White House website, with a photograph in place of Obama’s portrait.

(The White House portraits are distinct from the official portraits held at Washington, DC’s National Portrait Gallery, where paintings of Barack and Michelle Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have proved a sensation since their unveiling in 2018. These are even scheduled to go on a national tour.)

The unveiling customarily happens towards the end of the first term of a president’s successor, and brings the former president’s staff, family, and friends back to the White House to mingle with the current occupants. The Obamas, for instance, welcomed George and Laura Bush in the East Wing for their reveal in 2012.

President Barack Obama welcomes former President George W. Bush and Former First Lady Laura Bush back to the White House to unveil his formal Presidential portrait that will hang form this point on in the White House. Photo by ImageCatcher News Service/Corbis via Getty Images.

President Barack Obama welcomes former President George W. Bush and Former First Lady Laura Bush back to the White House to unveil his formal Presidential portrait that will hang form this point on in the White House. Photo by ImageCatcher News Service/Corbis via Getty Images.

“George, I will always remember the gathering you hosted for all the living former presidents before I took office, your kind words of encouragement,” Obama said at the time. “Plus, you also left me a really good TV sports package.”

Bush had his own wishes for Obama at the 2012 ceremony. “I am also pleased, Mr. President, that when you are wandering these halls as you wrestle with tough decisions, you will now be able to gaze at this portrait and ask, what would George do?”

In a virtual commencement address on Saturday, Obama seemed to compare Trump to a small child. Trump has recently accused the ex-president of committing the “biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA,” though he has been vague about what he means.


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