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Greetings from the Director

Greetings from the Director

The National Portrait Gallery, with its mission to tell the history of the United States through the images and biographies of those who have contributed to its formation, development, and present reality, is a museum of history and art, whose centerpiece has always been America’s Presidents. In recognition of the innumerable contributions made by women to our history and culture, the portraits of the nation’s first ladies have become the most requested by the public.

The nation’s first ladies have influenced American history and culture since Martha Washington stepped into the role in 1789. They are, of course, tasked with picking out place settings and hosting parties, but beyond the walls of the White House, each one of them has left an indelible mark. Whether it was Dolley Payne Todd Madison, who brought together politicians on opposing sides to compromise on public policies; Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as the first chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights; or Hillary Rodham Clinton, who held the office of U.S. secretary of state, first ladies have often demonstrated politically savvy. They have also drawn attention to important social issues, altering the ways in which Americans think about themselves and one another. Lucy Ware Webb Hayes supported temperance. Rosalynn Smith Carter offered nonjudgmental support of mental illness, and Nancy Davis Reagan sought to decrease substance abuse through her “Just Say No” campaign.

Most of the portraits of presidents and first ladies in the museum’s collection have been acquired as gifts or purchases, but in 1994, the Portrait Gallery commissioned artist Ronald Sherr to paint President George H. W. Bush. In an era when portraiture was becoming less popular, the museum recognized the importance of artistically significant representations of presidents, and a decade later, when the commission for a portrait of President Bill Clinton was being initiated, the museum chose to expand this practice to include first ladies.

Ginny Stanford’s 2006 portrait of Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first commissioned portrait of an American first lady to enter into the museum’s collection. Two years later, in 2008, Aleksander Titovets was commissioned to paint First Lady Laura Welch Bush, and in 2018, Amy Sherald completed her commissioned painting of First Lady Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, who had left the White House the previous year. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Knauss Trump are expected to follow this tradition and sit for commissioned portraits when they leave the White House.

As the incomparable Betty Bloomer Ford noted in 1975, “Why should my husband’s job, or yours, prevent us from being ourselves? Being ladylike does not require silence.” The insights and experiences of first ladies have helped advance women’s social and political independence. Today, as we recognize the eventuality of having a “first spouse” and as we have come to not only accept—but expect—first ladies to serve as leaders, we can only begin to imagine how their roles—and their portraits—will develop into the future.

Kim Sajet

Director, National Portrait Gallery

First Ladies of the United States book cover
First Ladies of the United States

by National Portrait Gallery (Author), Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw (Author), Kim Sajet (Foreword)

Since this nation’s founding, the first ladies of the United States have been shaping the landscape of American history and culture.

This richly illustrated catalogue, published to coincide with the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States, serves as a handbook for the museum’s collection of first ladies’ portraits. Exploring the achievements and stories of these remarkable women through representation, we come to see how much has evolved since Martha Custis Washington stepped into the position in 1789.

What can we learn about these formidable women—their roles, personalities, and public and private lives—through portraiture? In First Ladies of the United States, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, the National Portrait Gallery’s senior historian, responds to those very questions with a lively, thoroughly researched essay and more than fifty insightful entries.

The portraits of the nation’s first ladies have become the most requested by the museum’s public, perhaps signaling increased recognition and respect for their contributions. This book uses a contemporary lens to reflect upon the role and its history and makes important connections among the individuals—and their portraits.

Politics and time periods are distinct; personal tragedies and triumphs are singular. But it is made evident in First Ladies of the United States that the lives of each these women are just as tightly woven into the fabric of this country as those of this nation’s presidents.