Now on view, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has opened its latest exhibit “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States,” which spans 250 years of First Ladies, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump. The title references a quote from an 1844 letter written by Julia Gardiner Tyler to her mother after marrying President John Tyler, but is undeniably true for First Ladies today.
The first NPG exhibition dedicated to First Ladies in many years, this curation by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw features not only paintings but also a wide variety of media, including silhouettes and sculptures.
Visitors will see Mary Todd Lincoln’s Capelet, a gift from her dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, in 1861; rare full-length portraits of First Ladies in their prominence like Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison; and a bust of Harriet Lane Johnson, which is notable as sculptures of women were especially rare in the late 19th Century.
The exhibit focuses on portraiture, but it does include some fashion displayed in conjunction with three ladies’ images. Clothing centerpieces include a Chanel suit of Jackie Kennedy’s that was designed in France but made entirely in the United States; the second inaugural gown of Nancy Reagan; and the famous Milly gown from Michelle Obama’s official portrait.
Shaw admitted there were challenges in organizing an exhibit of First Ladies portraits as very few exist. The Gallery itself commissioned three portraits of recent First Ladies after their service: Clinton, Bush, and Obama, which will all be on view. Other materials are on loan from museums and private collections, with particular assistance from the White House and National First Ladies’ Library.
“[These were] generally installed in private or diplomatic meeting rooms and not on public view. So this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” added Kim Sajet, Director of the National Portrait Gallery.
Only one First Lady was not able to be pictured — Margaret Taylor — though she is represented by her daughter, Betty Taylor Bliss, who Shaw said often filled in for her hosting duties.
Every Eye Is Upon Me will be on view through May 23, 2021, Wednesday through Sunday 11:30 AM to 7 PM, with timed entry passes required for all visitors. The exhibit is part of the Smithsonian’s American History Initiative Because of Her Story.