The First Ladies on display at the National Portrait Gallery
As Americans elect their new president, the National Portrait Gallery is hosting the largest exhibition of portraits of the First Lady outside the White House. Opened this fall, “Every Eye is on Me: America’s First Ladies” features portraits and achievements of women who have served this nation from the White House in this unique and empowering role. The exhibition spans approximately 250 years, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump, and features more than 60 portraits of the First Ladies as well as paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs and personal memorabilia, such as dresses.
The exhibition groups the portraits by era, highlighting the importance of the first ladies in shaping American history and culture. It begins with visual depictions of the very first presidential wives, starting with Martha Washington, whose responsibilities primarily included “raising children, running a large household and entertaining guests. ”
The National Portrait Gallery goes to great lengths to speak about the lasting legacy left by each First Lady, while also demonstrating how the role of the First Lady has evolved over time. Beginning in the mid-20th century, First Ladies began to engage in social and cultural causes and advocate for issues they were passionate about.
Twentieth-century portraits include Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, who championed social causes during the Great Depression and World War II. Also included is Nancy Reagan, who encouraged people to “just say no” to illegal drugs in the 1970s. Lady Bird Johnson campaigned solo for her husband’s election across the South. Rosalynn Carter was sent by her husband abroad. The last First Lady of the twentieth century was Hillary Clinton, whose political importance continued after leaving the White House.
As we move into the modern era, portraits are starting to reflect a change: instead of the classic style of previous generations, artists are starting to infuse the personalities of the first ladies into the work. This includes more artistic license, but also a variety of colors, shapes and styles, used to highlight the roles these women have played in the history and politics of the country.
While portraits of the first ladies were once purchased or acquired as a gift by the National Portrait Gallery, Ginny Stanford’s portrait of Hillary Clinton in 2006 was the first commissioned portrait of America’s first lady to join the museum’s collection.
Entering the White House on a team with her husband Bill Clinton, Hillary questioned existing notions of the role of the First Lady in the President’s administration. A Yale-trained lawyer who has written several books, Clinton spearheaded health care legislation during her husband’s 8-year presidency. She later served as a New York State Senator and Secretary of State in the Obama administration. She even became the first woman to receive the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.
Despite her successes, public perception was very critical of Hillary Clinton. Some critics felt that Clinton seemed cold and lacked the femininity they expected from a First Lady. However, when Ginny Stanford met Clinton, she felt “warmth and humor. “She painted an easily recognizable portrait yet reveals a side of Hillary Clinton that the public hasn’t really seen. Stanford’s is the portrait of a strong and powerful woman, yet gentle, feminine and welcoming. Portrayed in a costume. light yellow and a simple gold necklace, Clinton’s iconic profile breathes a sense of timelessness typical of the Italian Renaissance that Stanford admitted to imitate.
Another portrait that has gained a lot of attention over the years is that of Nancy Reagan, painted by Aaron Shikler. One of the most portrait artists wanted In the United States for decades, Mr. Shikler was famous for his portrayal of Jackie Kennedy, which emphasized his inner strength. It portrayed Nancy Reagan, a former film actress, in a red dress and in a pose similar to that of Jackie Kennedy, making her slender, graceful and regal.
Nancy Reagan passed away in 2016, leaving behind a legacy of public service and charitable work. She is particularly famous as a style icon, who has borrowed some of Jackie Kennedy’s favorites, such as classic woolen suits, pearls, and elegant coats, but makes them her own. Shikler’s stunning painting truly reflects Reagan’s combination of Washington elegance, Hollywood glamor and iconic red dress.
Equally intriguing is the portrayal of Michelle Obama by Baltimore artist Amy Sherald. This is a life-size image of the African American First Lady in a sleeveless dress designed by American designer Michelle Smith for Milly. The imposing figure of Obama in a reflective pose similar to Rodin’s Thinker rests on cascading folds in rainbow colors on a solid blue background. Sherald used grayscale instead of brown to paint Michelle’s skin, making her look like a dream.
The image looks nostalgic but ultramodern. Smith did not want to refer to the story. She said the dress was meant to be worn “everyday life and was made of fabric with a clean and minimal geometric print”, Giving Michelle Obama’s gaze an avant-garde sensibility, typical of the way she is perceived by her supporters. Still, Amy Sherald was nostalgic when she painted the portrait. She says Obama’s dress made her think of Dutch modernist Pete Mondrian’s primary color charts and hand-sewn patterned quilts made by African American women in a small town in Alabama.
Enthusiasts believe Sherald’s painting is an honest and magnificent portrayal of Michelle Obama’s years as First Lady which were defined by her intelligence, rhetorical skills, style, and dedication to the welfare of American children and to other key social issues. It is therefore not surprising that the portrait has attracted visitors since its unveiling. Incredibly popular, Michelle Obama’s portrait had to be hung in a separate room in the exhibition to avoid gallery clutter.
“Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States” will be presented at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, from November 13, 2020 to May 23, 2021.
Co-written with Maria Birger