Time and time again, after examining portraits of presidents, visitors to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington have left comment cards with a request: Bring the ladies out.
The First Ladies are what “our visitors most want to see,” said Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, senior historian and director of the museum’s history, research and scholarship programs. Soon these visitors will get their wish.
“Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States,” an exhibition which opened at the gallery on November 13, is a collection of dozens of portraits of first ladies, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump. Scheduled until May 23, 2021, the exhibit will include items from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, as well as works on loan from the White House, the National First Ladies’ Library, the State Department and more. According to the National Portrait Gallery, the exhibition will be the largest presentation of portraits of the first lady to take place outside the White House.
“Since September 11, 2001, it has been very difficult for the public to visit the White House, which houses the largest collection of painted portraits of first ladies,” said Ms. Shaw, curator of the new exhibit. Speaking by phone, she said the show will include material on about 55 women – more, of course, than you’d find in a presidents exhibit.
“There were more first ladies – women you might call a first lady – than there were presidents,” she said, “because some presidents, their wives have passed away before. them, or they had women of the family who served as hostesses.
The show will feature people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Todd Lincoln and Dolley Madison alongside other women who have played a significant role in the lives of presidents, such as Martha Jefferson Randolph, the eldest daughter of Thomas Jefferson who served as a hostess at the White House. It will serve as a sort of counter-programming to the museum’s permanent exhibition on presidents.
In addition to painted portraits, drawings, sculptures, engravings and photographic prints, the exhibition will include a video installation of images taken by Annie Leibovitz. It will also include other ephemeral items, including the dress Michelle Obama wore in her official portrait and a dress made for Mary Todd Lincoln by Elizabeth Keckley, the former slave woman who became a successful seamstress and Mrs. Lincoln’s confidante. .
“We wanted to show how complicated the lives of these women were, how they often depended on the work of other women,” Ms. Shaw said, “and how they had their own ideas, opinions and flaws.”