She captured Mrs. Obama on canvas


Glen Cove native Sharon Sprung was chosen to paint the official White House portrait of then first lady Michelle Obama. Sprung is one of a select group of women tasked with creating a White House portrait, but her journey began with a difficult childhood. Those experiences, however, helped to shape her ability to observe people beneath the surface and reveal their character through art.

Sprung, 69, was born in Brooklyn, and her family moved to Glen Cove not long afterward. She grew up on Milford Lane, where she lived for 20 years with her family.

“I was a real Glen Cover,” Sprung said.

Her mother, a Glen Cove High School guidance counselor, was widowed when Sharon was 6 years old, and raised two children on her own. In the years following her husband’s death from leukemia, Sharon’s mother refused to talk about it, which created what her daughter said was a quiet household.

Sharon’s mother threw out all of the photos of her father, leaving behind only whatever memories the young artist could conjure of her father’s face. For Sharon, this naturally progressed to a strong interest in art.

But her mother, who had a doctoral degree in education, wasn’t supportive of her daughter’s desire to earn a living as an artist, fearing she wouldn’t be able to do so pursuing her passion. The disagreement led to a turbulent relationship between the two. Sprung’s mother never truly understood her daughter’s passion for art before she died three years ago.

“I had a very strong will and I wanted to follow my passion,” Sprung said. “I just felt the stork delivered the baby to the wrong house, I disappointed her and she disappointed me.”

After high school, Sprung attended Cornell University. She dropped out after being discouraged that she found it impossible to balance her art and academics.

“It’s not that I didn’t enjoy taking the other classes,” Sprung said. “I just didn’t have enough time to develop the craft that I knew I was going to have to develop.”

After leaving Cornell in her 20s, Sprung started showing her work at the Harbor Gallery in Cold Spring Harbor in the 1970s. Then she began studying at the Art Students League of New York City where she teaches today.

Sprung is not a stranger to Washington D.C. Throughout her career she has painted other notable figures like Jeannette Rankin, a congressional representative from Montana, who was the first woman to hold federal office in the United States. Sprung also worked on a portrait for Patsy Mink, a former representative from Hawaii, the first woman of color elected to Congress and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Sprung’s experience as a portraitist caught the attention of the White House in 2016. She received a letter from the curator of the White House identifying her as one of the top candidates to paint the first lady. Initially Sprung felt overwhelmed by the request, but as time passed, she had a change of heart, given her tremendous respect she had for the first lady.

The portrait, created in her Brooklyn based home-studio, took Sprung nine months to complete. During those months she meticulously studied Obama, surrounding herself with images from her early childhood up until her time at the White House.

“I really think that I gained a good sense of who she was,” Sprung said. “Even if I couldn’t describe it in words.”

Michael Hall, executive and artistic director of the Art Students League of New York, where Sprung teaches, said she has a forensic approach when selecting color pallets, expression and body language in her works. Hall emphasized that Sprung went so far as to keep the first lady’s dress in her studio. The light-blue chiffon dress designed by Jason Wu and donned by the former first lady was the most difficult section of the portrait, given the vibrant color.

“She humanizes Michelle really well,” Hall said. “But also shows a level of seriousness while showing warmth.”

The result of Sprung’s labor encompasses a soft but bright depiction of the former first lady in her blue dress, while sitting on an embroidered red couch in front of a muted pink wall.
Since the Kennedy Administration, the White House Historical Association has commissioned portraits. Traditionally, they’re unveiled in a public East Room ceremony within a few years of the president leaving office, though the Trump administration skipped that formality, leading to both Obama’s portraits unveiled on Sept. 7, six years after the Obama’s left the White House.
Sprung said she enjoys the challenges that come with being an artist, describing the process as a puzzle that she has become addicted to.

“My place in the world is to paint,” Sprung said. “However I have to do it, I’m going to do it.”