Published: January 5, 2021
WASHINGTON, DC – On view at the National Portrait Gallery through May 23, “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States” is the first major exhibition to explore the historical significance of this prominent position through the mode of portraiture. The exhibition, organized in collaboration with the White House and the National First Ladies’ Library, spans nearly 250 years, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump, and features more than 60 portraits of the First Ladies or those who undertook the role of White House hostess, alongside related ephemera, including iconic dresses.
The exhibition’s title references a quote from an 1844 letter written by Julia Gardiner Tyler to her mother after she married President John Tyler. The Portrait Gallery’s presentation uses Tyler’s quote as a point of departure to examine the responsibilities and significance First Ladies have had since 1789, when Martha Washington became the first woman to fill the role. Through portraiture, the exhibition will shed light on the stories and personalities of each sitter, focusing on the myriad of challenges they faced and their greatest accomplishments.
Six chronological sections divide the exhibition: “Becoming First Ladies (1789-1845),” “Manifest Destiny and the Civil War (1845-1877),” “The Gilded Age (1877-1901),” “Imperialism and Progressivism (1901-1933),” “Serving a Cause (1933-1993)” and “In the New Century (1993-present).”
The belief that the United States government had a “”manifest destiny,” or a right to hold political influence over the North American continent, took root following the War of 1812. By the time of the Mexican-American War (1846-48), that belief had begun to shape the lives of the first ladies. During the Civil War era, first ladies from the Midwest and the West brought new attitudes to the role.
By the end of the Nineteenth Century, the widespread availability of cheap chromolithographs brought about the rise in popular print culture. Images of the first lady began to circulate widely, making her a national celebrity. With the increasing distribution of photographs of first ladies, their families and the elegant White House banquet spaces in which they entertained, first ladies at the time frequently found themselves at the center of social trends and fashion debates.
In the early Twentieth Century, first ladies found their roles changed. The nation’s growing presence on the global, imperialist stage allowed first ladies to actively participate in international diplomacy in new ways that were not experienced by their predecessors. Similarly, having worked outside the home, many also brought their professional experiences to the White House.
By the mid-Twentieth Century, first ladies were expected to take up social and cultural causes as a means to both serve the country and advocate for issues about which they were passionate.
The exhibition is curated by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, the National Portrait Gallery’s senior historian and director of history, research and scholarly programs. A richly illustrated book titled First Ladies of the United States, co-published by the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian Books, serves as a companion for the exhibition, along with the recent volume America’s Presidents (2017).
“Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States” is one of 11 exhibitions dedicated to women presented by the National Portrait Gallery over a five-year period (2018-22), and is part of the Smithsonian American Women’s Initiative, “Because of Her Story.” It is made possible through the support of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, Morgan Stanley, and the generosity of many other donors.
The exhibition will be accompanied by educational programming and a comprehensive online exhibition that features all works in the exhibition with additional research resources.
The National Portrait Gallery is at 8th and G Streets, NW. For information, www.firstladies.si.edu/gallery.
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