National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Every Eye is Upon Me’ Focuses on American First Ladies | Arts & Theater

Helen “Nellie” Louise Herron Taft sits in the garden of the White House with the mansion in the distance. She is known for the 3,020 Japanese cherry trees that she planted on the Capitol grounds and along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC, after visiting Japan in 1900, rightly believing they would add great beauty to the national capital.

While there are various forms of portraiture, including the very personal form of a silhouette of Abigail Adams, there is only one sculpture: the bust portrait of “Harriet Lane Johnston” (1873) by William Henry Rinehart . Lane was the first lady of her unmarried uncle James Buchanan. This rare piece of work showcases her bare shoulders above a deep plunging neckline, a style she put in fashion when she changed her inaugural ball gown by lowering it by 2 inches.

The power and influence of the first ladies of the 20th century, such as Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Nancy Reagan, is well documented. Less is known about the first ladies. The final gallery begins with Martha Washington, who was to create the role. Dolley Madison is depicted in an oil painting from 1848, when she was 80, wearing her signature turban. She had first served as a hostess for Thomas Jefferson, then as first lady when her husband was president. She would be considered the country’s first lady for years with her own power base.

While modern first ladies are portrayed in media as diverse as magazine covers and campaign buttons, among the first ladies is a special miniature portrait. Elizabeth Monroe is represented in a creation by the Franco-Swiss artist Louis Sené, which allowed James Monroe to carry it in his pocket.


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