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Every Eye Is Upon Me

First Ladies of the United States

I very well know every eye is upon me,
my dear mother, and I will behave accordingly.

Julia Gardiner Tyler

When Julia Gardiner married President John Tyler in 1844, she sought to reassure her mother that she would rise to the occasion as the highly scrutinized hostess of the White House and the organizer of official receptions and state dinners.

Today, few would argue that the first lady of the United States holds one of the most prominent social positions in the world. Presidents’ wives typically assume the role, but for widowed or unmarried presidents, the duties have fallen to daughters, sisters, nieces, or other women. Each first lady inhabits this complicated and evolving responsibility differently. Likewise, their portraits have taken a variety of forms: paintings, drawings, cut-paper silhouettes, popular prints, photographs, and more rarely, sculptures. The first lady’s image—across media, over time, and as it has circulated both publicly and privately—is the focus of this exhibition.

Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States brings together more than sixty objects to illuminate the accomplishments, personalities, and lives of the nation’s first ladies. At the same time, it asks us to consider the changing nature of women’s relationships to the presidency, a seat of power that they are yet to occupy themselves.

This exhibition is organized by the National Portrait Gallery in collaboration with the White House and the National First Ladies’ Library.

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National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery is located at Eighth and G streets N.W., Washington, D.C.

As a public health precaution due to COVID-19, all Smithsonian museums, including the National Portrait Gallery, are temporarily closed.


We are grateful for the generosity of the following donors, whose support has made this exhibition possible.

Robert and Arlene Kogod

Morgan Stanley logo

“Morgan Stanley is proud to support the Smithsonian’s new exhibition dedicated to honoring the prominent women in our country’s political history and marking their undeniable historical significance. This exhibit sheds light on the complex challenges these dynamic women faced in their role as First Lady, but also their great accomplishments and leadership that deserves recognition.”

-Tom Nides, Managing Director and Vice Chairman of Morgan Stanley, Lead Sponsor of Every Eye is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States

Jonathan and Nancy Lee Kemper
Reinsch Pierce Family Foundation by Lola C. Reinsch
John H. Simpson Charitable Trust
Terra Foundation for American Art

Dr. Paul and Mrs. Rose Carter
The Honorable Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn
Ronnyjane Goldsmith
Michael and Catherine Podell
Mr. and Mrs. John Daniel Reaves
Lynda Thomas
Susan and David McCombs

This project received support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative.

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Smithsonian logo
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.