"Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States"
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“Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States”

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Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Premieres Major Exhibition Of The First Ladies of the United States.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery presents “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States,” the first major exhibition to explore the historical significance of this prominent position through the mode of portraiture.

The exhibition spans nearly 250 years, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump, and features more than 60 portraits of the First Ladies, alongside related ephemera and some of their most iconic dresses. “Every Eye Is Upon Me:

First Ladies of the United States” is one of 11 exhibitions highlighting the achievements of women that the Portrait Gallery is presenting over a five-year period (2018–2022), as part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, “Because of Her Story.” On view through May 23, 2021, the exhibition is curated by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, the National Portrait Gallery’s senior historian and director of history, research, and scholarly programs.

The exhibition’s title is taken from a letter written by First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler, who wrote to her mother soon after marrying President John Tyler in 1844. 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.

The exhibition centers on the women who entered the White House as spouses as well as other women who were recruited into service, including the sisters, nieces, and family friends, such as Dolley Madison, who served as White House hostess for the widowed President Thomas Jefferson. Through portraiture, the exhibition will shed light on the stories and personalities of each sitter, focusing on the myriad challenges they faced and their greatest accomplishments.

“These remarkable women by and large set aside self-interest to devote themselves to the responsibilities of being ‘First Lady,’ a complicated, non-electable role that continues to adapt with each beholder,” Shaw said. “The portraits included in this exhibition visualize the difference between these women, revealing fascinating details about the worlds in which they moved and the historical moments in which they lived.”

Working closely with the White House and the National First Ladies‘ Library, the Portrait Gallery exhibition brings viewers closer to understanding the hardships and triumphs of the dozens of dynamic women who embraced, sometimes reluctantly, the duties of serving as hostess for the Phttps://firstladies.si.edu/resident of the United States.

The selection of portraits and related ephemera will include paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, engravings, and a video installation of photographs by contemporary photographer Annie Leibovitz. The exhibition also includes garments worn by Mary Todd Lincoln, Michelle Obama, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Nancy Reagan.

In addition to displaying some of the most iconic images of First Ladies in the Portrait Gallery’s collection, “Every Eye Is Upon Me” features important loans from the White House, the National First Ladies’ Library, and the U.S. Department of State, as well as several presidential sites and libraries and private collections. This is the largest presentation of First Lady portraiture to take place outside of the White House. 

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