Wherever one stands politically, perception is often paramount to reality, and through the decades many American first ladies have shown an understanding that, even though they may be opposed to the idea, appearances still matter.
A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., showcases some lasting impressions of presidents’ spouses and the ripple effects they have had on American lives. Spanning nearly 250 years, “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States” examines the historical significance of the job title through portraiture. The title references a quote written by the self-possessed Julia Gardiner Tyler, who dabbled in modeling in the 1840s, in a letter to her mother after becoming President John Tyler’s second wife. It is also the starting point for the exhibition in exploring the responsibilities and significance first ladies have had since Martha Washington first landed in the non-elected role in 1789.
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With the exception of the White House, the National Portrait Gallery is the only destination where the public can see a full collection of portraits of all of the U.S. presidents. However, that is not the case with America’s first ladies, since there is no known painted portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln that was made during her lifetime and a few others, according to senior historian and acting chief curator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw. One of Lincoln that surfaced in 1929, was offered to her descendants and was displayed in the Illinois State House at one point turned out to be a forgery that had been repainted to include a broach at the sitter’s neck with a tiny portrait of Abraham Lincoln, Shaw said.
“The possibility that there are portraits out there of course remains. There’s a great desire on the part of people to be able to visualize these women in formal portraiture,” Shaw said.
Running through May 23, “Every Eye Is Upon Me” is the NPG’s effort to bring together as many portraits of first ladies that it could. CNN, which is not involved with the exhibition, is airing an original series titled “First Ladies.”
“Not every woman that we think of as a first lady was the wife of a president. Some presidents were bachelors, some were widowers, some were married more than once. Some had a daughter, a daughter-in-law or a friend of the family as their hostess,” Shaw said. “Some people say there are 55. We have 57 in our exhibition.”
Beyond portraiture, the exhibition is meant to explore how their identities and legacies trickle down and resonate with the masses. More than 30 portraits from the NPG’s collection are featured, with the remainder on loan from other institutions. Along with paintings, photographs and prints, there are campaign buttons, indicators of how mini-portraits of first ladies circulated during election years, Shaw noted.
After 18 months of working on the exhibition and writing its catalogue, Shaw said she was impressed by how remarkable some of these women were. “Some of them were much smarter and more ambitious than their husbands. But because of the time when they were born and lived, their lives were much more circumscribed by the limitations of what women could do and achieve on their own. So many of them propelled the careers of their husbands,” Shaw said.
While the first ladies’ fashions at the National Museum of American History reel in droves of visitors annually and offer a better sense of their physiques and personal style, the NPG, another arm of the Smithsonian, provides an artistic likeness and their credentials. “Portraits from the middle to late 19th century of Nellie Taft or Caroline Harrison are full-length formal portraits of very formidable women, who are absolutely enamored with the role that they have found themselves in,” Shaw said. Others were less enthralled with their elevated station in life, as Ellen Louise Axson Wilson, Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, wrote to outgoing President William H. Taft, “I am naturally the most [socially] unambitious of women and life in the White House has no attractions for me.”
Wilson was also one of three first ladies to have died in the White House, causing other women to assume their hostessing responsibilities. Thomas Jefferson tried to avoid mixed social occasions of all kinds and preferred gatherings with like-minded male colleagues to those where political adversaries were present at the same table, as noted in the show’s catalogue. When that was not an option, Dolley Madison, the wife of his Secretary of State James Madison, stepped in as hostess, as did his eldest daughter Martha “Patsy” Jefferson.
In addition to the portraits, visitors can see a capelet that was sewn for Mary Lincoln by Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a former enslaved woman who bought her freedom and that of her son, with her needle, according to Shaw. She later set up a dress shop and became the modiste to all of the ladies in Washington, D.C., Shaw said, “I wanted to be able to talk about all of the different women, who supported the lives and public personas of first ladies. Elizabeth Keckley was Mary Lincoln’s close friend and confidante. As close as that relationship would allow. It was also a way to talk about African Americans in the White House and interracial friendships and alliances that some of the first ladies from the 19th century made,” said Shaw.
Gallery-goers will find a smattering of other fashion items that have not been shown in the Beltway since they were worn. A James Galanos-designed gown that Nancy Reagan wore to her husband Ronald’s second inauguration in 1985, and then again later that year to welcome Prince Charles and Princess Diana to the White House is on view. A gray wool Chez Ninon suit that belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy is on view, thanks to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
And Michelle Obama has loaned the Milly dress that she wore for her portrait by artist Amy Sherald, which also is being displayed. Designer Michelle Smith, who subsequently sold her company, will speak with Shaw in a Dec. 15 virtual program about the garment, “the power of the needle to change women’s lives“ and her new company.
As for first ladies’ lasting appeal, Shaw said, “In the United States, we don’t have royalty. In the colonial period, we had landed gentry, people with big estates, who ran the hounds in the fox hunts, and thought of themselves as a kind of a new-world royalty. The first lady, the president, early on were modeled on European structures. Martha Washington was called Lady Washington because those were the terms that the new Republicans had easily at hand. Ever since then, there’s been a process to elevating the spouse of the president to a ceremonial role, so there’s that fascination. Not every first lady has been so keenly interested in how she looks, what she wore or the kinds of parties that she had.”
Many in the modern era have been on board with the more traditional roles. As an Army wife, Mamie Eisenhower willingly brought her homemaking skills into the White House, “putting pink doilies everywhere, dressing in Dior’s ‘New Look,’ cinched-waist fashion,” Shaw said. A Life magazine in the exhibition features Eisenhower on the cover and shows her going about her daily routine at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “That was in a moment after the Second World War, where white middle-class women had stepped outside of the home and taken jobs in industry. It was a social movement to get women back into the house, back into the kitchen and back into tight-fitting clothes and high heels. Mamie served as the role model — kind of a reverse-feminist role model for a lot of American women,” Shaw said. “The first lady is often used that way in the media to give a guide to the American public for a kind of female and feminine ideal. Sometimes that’s embraced. Other times it’s been rejected. We’re trying to show how that image has changed over time and the ways these first ladies self-fashioned their identities, and the ways that appears in the portraits that we do have.”
As for whether the exhibition addresses the idea that the feminization and fashion focus of the first lady is a dated one, Shaw noted how Kennedy’s admiration for French designers ran counter to wanting to wear American fashion. By wearing Chez Ninon, a Park Avenue atelier that copied designs by European houses with their permission, she managed to do that. (The Park Avenue dress shop paid a fee that was known at that time as a ‘caution’ to reproduce line-for-line copies in the same fabrics and with the same accents.) Kennedy was widely associated with Oleg Cassini, who designed many of her defining styles during her White House years.
Shaw said, “The way that she dressed was very political but she also was very fashionable. It changed the way that American women imagined the first lady in a more international way.”
Similarly, Obama was a champion for American designers, including young ones like Jason Wu, who was 27 when he designed her first inaugural gown. (The New York designer also did the honors for her second one.) Obama was known to mix designer labels and some more attainable brands like J. Crew. Shaw said, “These were designs that anybody could purchase. They didn’t have to be custom made or tailored.” (Obama’s stylist Meredith Koop routinely worked with designers in culling the former first lady’s selections for key appearances. Designers often said they did not know what would be worn until Obama appeared at the events.)
Shaw said of Obama, “With her fashion choices, she showed women to show their arms, be strong, embrace who they were and have that self-confidence.”
Surprisingly, the National Portrait Gallery only started to commission portraits of first ladies in 2006 with Hillary Clinton. Founded in 1962 and opened in the old Arts and Industries Building in 1966 before moving to its current location two years later, the NPG’s mission was and still is to collect portraits of notable people who have impacted the history and culture of the U.S. Initially the institution was not allowed to collect portraits of anyone who was not alive, excluding past presidents, said Shaw.
“There were far fewer women than men. There were far fewer people of color than white people. So the collection was very limited in terms of its diversity,” said Shaw, noting that in the past 10 years there has been a real push to remedy that under current director [Kim Sajet.] “But it has been slow…we commission very few portraits now. But it’s important to do so because so few people have portraits made of themselves. We really are in this restorative gear in trying to collect portraits that really tell the whole history of the United States, and our diversity.”
The NPG’s latest show is one of 11 exhibitions dedicated to women over a five-year stretch that is part of the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative. “It’s impressive to see this whole exhibit of powerful women. And I hope that people get to see it in person, because standing in front of them is very moving. We forget that for each of these presidents, there was one, two [or] three women, who were making it happen for them,” Shaw said. “They were helping to propel his career and ensuring that the soft power of hostessing, bringing people together in social situations and making conversations happen. These were the women, who caused so much of that political speech to have a space, a space of discourse.”
She recalled unearthing a little portrait in the graphics’ file of Grover Cleveland’s sister Rose, who served as his first lady for the first three years of his administration until he married Frances Clara Cleveland 1886. The portrait of Rose Cleveland was not in the permanent collection, because she was not valued as someone who fully impacted the history and culture of the United States, Shaw said.
Having worked as a Hollywood actress, Nancy Reagan understood the power of dressing glamorously. She wears red ensembles in both of the portraits that are featured in the exhibition, as well as the one by Eric Shikler that hangs in the White House and could not be loaned, Shaw said. “She really established ‘Reagan Red’ as her signature color, and some political historians believe that out of that moment stemmed the two colors of the political parties. Now that the Republicans are always red and the Democrats are always blue, we have red states and blue states and that comes out of Nancy’s Reagan’s choice of red.” Shaw said.
But others have suggested that the choice of red and blue was emphasized in 2000, when the networks adopted those two colors for the respective parties. Notably in a keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama referred to how “the pundits like to slice and dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats.”
First Lady Melania Trump can be seen arms-crossed, wearing Dolce & Gabbana in her official White House photograph by Regine Mahaux, which was provided and framed by the White House. She is the second first lady to be born outside the U.S., and the only one to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. The catalogue cites her initiatives including the “Be Best” campaign. Her portrait is displayed in the gallery that houses other modern first ladies and right next to one of Laura Bush.