National Portrait Gallery Presents Major Exhibition “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States”

September 29, 2020
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Black and white photo of Eleanor Roosevelt

“Eleanor Roosevelt” by Yousuf Karsh, gelatin silver print, 1944. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of Estrellita Karsh, in memory of Yousuf Karsh. Copyright: Estate of Yousuf Karsh.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has announced “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 will span nearly 250 years, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump, and will feature more than 60 portraits of the First Ladies, alongside related ephemera including iconic dresses. “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States” is one of 11 exhibitions dedicated to women presented by the Portrait Gallery over a five-year period (2018–2022), and is part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, “Because of Her Story.” On view Nov. 13 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. A virtual press preview with Shaw will be held over Zoom Nov. 12 from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. ET. RSVP to   

The exhibition’s title references a quote from an 1844 letter written by Julia Gardiner Tyler to her mother after she married President John Tyler. 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 will highlight the women who entered the White House through marriage alongside others who were relatives or family friends recruited into service such as Dolley Madison, who served as White House hostess for Thomas Jefferson before James Madison. Through portraiture, the exhibition will shed light on the stories and personalities of each sitter, focusing on the myriad of 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 will bring 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 President 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 will also include items of clothing worn by Mary Todd Lincoln, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Nancy Regan and Michelle Obama.

In addition to displaying some of the most iconic images of First Ladies in the Portrait Gallery’s collection, “Every Eye Is Upon Me” will feature 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. 

The exhibition will be accompanied by robust educational programming, and the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian Books will co-publish a richly illustrated book, First Ladies of the United States, which will serve as a companion for the exhibition along with the recent volume America’s Presidents (2017).

“Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States” is made possible through the support of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, Morgan Stanley and the generosity of many other donors.

National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the multifaceted story of the United States through the individuals who have shaped American culture. Spanning the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the American story.

The National Portrait Gallery is part of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture at Eighth and G streets N.W., Washington, D.C. It is open Wednesday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m.–7 p.m. Visitors enter and exit through the G Street entrance. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Connect with the museum at and on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.


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