Portraits of the First Ladies: How to Notice New Elements
First ladies of the United States are not elected by the public, yet they hold one of the most prominent social positions in the world. In Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States, our National Portrait Gallery presents the largest exhibition of first lady portraits outside of the White House. You can virtually explore this exhibition, with art and objects spanning nearly 250 years, on the National Portrait Gallery's website.
We spoke with Briana Zavadil White, head of Education at the National Portrait Gallery, about what we can discover in this exhibition. She shared how she works to engage students, teachers, teens, families, and adults with these portraits.
What makes Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States a notable exhibition for the National Portrait Gallery?
This is the first major exhibition to explore the historical significance of this important position through portraiture. The exhibition includes more than 60 portraits, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump. It includes related ephemera and select iconic dresses.
Visitors often ask why we don't have an exhibition of the First Ladies, given we do have a permanent gallery dedicated to the Presidents. I'm delighted we are now able to honor our audience's interests in First Ladies with this exhibition.
Do all the First Ladies have official portraits?
The Portrait Gallery began commissioning portraits of the First Lady in 2006 with Hillary Clinton. The process begins as the outgoing President is leaving office. The White House collection, which has acquired portraits of historic and current First Ladies since 1965, is separate from the National Portrait Gallery's collection.
What do students typically notice first about portraits of First Ladies?
Portraits of Martha Washington and Dolley Madison had always been on view in our America's Presidents gallery. For Washington, students always noticed her gaze was directed toward George Washington's portrait. (So sweet.) For Madison, she wears a turban on her head. Students comment that it's a curious fashion choice!
When many of us look at portraits of First Ladies, we notice fashion. What other elements of portraiture should we also notice, and how to you challenge learners to look beyond their first impression?
We teach our audiences, whether students or families, to look at portraiture using the elements of portrayal. These elements are clothing, hairstyle, pose, expression, setting, objects, medium, color, artistic style, and scale. Observing these elements in a portrait allows for analysis and interpretation of the image. It also allows us to consider the big "so what" about the image and its place in history. The Reading Portraiture Guide highlights how we look and why we look closely.
Which portrait in the exhibition have you explored most with learners?
I've worked with the portrait of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald the most. Obama's portrait is relevant and accessible to young people because she is a subject they know and many look up to. It is also an artwork that we can use as a springboard to discuss more critical conversations about the history of the representation of African Americans in portraiture.
I also love the Nancy Reagan portrait by Aaron Shikler. It is such simple portrait at first glance, with her iconic red clothing. However, it is actually a really great teaching tool when you learn the image was on the cover of Time magazine. It becomes a wonderful opportunity to connect the article in Time, "Nancy Regan's Growing Role," to the image.
Of the objects included in Every Eye Is Upon Me, which do you find sparks interesting conversation with learners?
Mary Lincoln's capelet, which was crafted by Elizabeth Keckley, is on loan from the National First Ladies' Library. Nearly all the clothing Mary Lincoln wore after becoming first lady was sewn by Keckley. Keckely was the daughter of an enslaved woman and her white owner. An accomplished seamstress, she used her sewing skills to buy her freedom. After moving to Washington, D.C., in 1860, Keckley became the preferred dressmaker to many important women in the capital. We love being able to make historical and biographical connections between portraits and related objects.
Every Eye is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States at the National Portrait Gallery is supported, in part, by the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative. Donate to the initiative to help us present diverse, untold American stories.
"Martha Washington" by unidentified artist. Copy after Gilbert Stuart. Oil on canvas, early-mid 19th Century. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.