The Biggest Exhibition of First Lady Portraits Ever Assembled Is Coming to the National Portrait Gallery in DC

The show will honor the accomplishments of the over 50 women who have served in this unelected yet challenging role.

Aaron Shikler, Nancy Reagan (1984–85). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine.
Aaron Shikler, Nancy Reagan (1984–85). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine.

Women will take center stage at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, this fall, with the largest showing of first lady portraiture ever held outside the White House. The show will span nearly 250 years, spotlighting the likes of Dolley Madison, Mary Todd Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jacqueline Kennedy.

The exhibition, titled “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States,” will feature 53 women, including women who died before their husband took office. In addition to the presidents’ wives, other women, such as female relatives of the commander in chief, have been pressed into duty as White House hostesses, sometimes unofficially.

Thomas Jefferson, for instance, was a widow when he was elected, and thus relied on his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph to fulfill the first lady’s duties. The only bachelor president, James Buchanan, installed his niece, Harriet Lane in the role.

News of the exhibition, which will revisit the challenges each first lady faced, as well as their individual personalities and accomplishments, comes just days before the October 4 premiere of the CNN documentary series First Ladies, profiling Roosevelt, Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Michelle Obama.

Eleanor Roosevelt in 1944. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Yousuf Karsh.

Eleanor Roosevelt in 1944. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Yousuf Karsh.

The Portrait Gallery show’s title is based on a quote from a letter Julia Gardiner Tyler wrote to her mother in 1844. Then only 24 years of age, she had just married President John Tyler (whose first wife, Letitia Christian, had died while he was in office). “I very well know every eye is upon me, my dear mother, and I will behave accordingly,” Tyler wrote.

“These remarkable women by and large set aside self-interest to devote themselves to the responsibilities of being ‘First Lady,’ a complicated, non-electable role that continues to adapt with each beholder,” said exhibition curator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, the National Portrait Gallery’s senior historian and director of history, research, and scholarly programs, in a statement.

“The portraits included in this exhibition visualize the difference between these women, revealing fascinating details about the worlds in which they moved and the historical moments in which they lived,” she added.

William S. Elwell, <em>Dolley Madison</em> (1848). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

William S. Elwell, Dolley Madison (1848). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

The museum is supplementing its own holdings with works on loan from places such as the National First Ladies’ Library, the State Department, and the White House, which boasts the largest collection of first lady portraits. The public has had limited access to those works since tours of the White House were restricted following the 9/11 attacks, making this exhibition a rare opportunity experience them in person.

There will be some 60 first lady portraits on view, with paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, and photographs, including a video installation of images by Annie Leibovitz. In addition, the show will feature ephemera and artifacts, such as the geometric-patterned gown by American designer Milly that Obama wore in her official portrait by Amy Sherald.

Milly's sketch for the gown Michelle Obama wore in her official portrait painted by artist Amy Sherald for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Courtesy of Milly.

Milly’s sketch for the gown Michelle Obama wore in her official portrait painted by artist Amy Sherald for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Courtesy of Milly.

That painting, which was so popular with visitors that the portrait gallery had to move it to a bigger room, is scheduled to go on tour to five museums across the US starting in June 2021.

“Every Eye Is Upon Me” is part of the Smithsonian’s $2 million American Women’s History Initiative, “Because of Her Story,” established in 2018 in response to growing calls for the institute to recognize and celebrate women’s roles in US history. It is also one of 11 exhibitions dedicated to women that the Portrait Gallery is staging between 2018 and 2022.

Anders Leonard Zorn, <em>Frances Folsom Cleveland</em> (1899). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Frances Payne.

Anders Leonard Zorn, Frances Folsom Cleveland (1899). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Frances Payne.

A dedicated museum for women’s history could also be on the horizon for the Smithsonian, with the US House of Representatives voting in February to establish just such an institution on the National Mall in the nation’s capital. Similar bills have been considered since 1998, and companion legislation is still working its way through the Senate.

“Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States” will be on view at the National Portrait Gallery, 8th and G Streets NW, Washington, DC, November 13, 2020–May 23, 2021.


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