“America’s Presidents” Exhibition Highlights
Since its creation by an Act of Congress in 1962, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has collected portraits of American presidents. The Portrait Gallery has the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House and now holds more than 1,600 likenesses of U.S. presidents in its collection. The museum which opened its doors to the public in 1968, is celebrating both the 50th anniversary of the “America’s Presidents” exhibition and the museum at large this year.
“America’s Presidents” lies at the heart of the Portrait Gallery’s mission to tell the American story through the lives of those who have shaped its history and culture. The recently transformed exhibition, which opened to the public in September 2017, includes new bilingual content, navigational elements and innovative technology that enhance the gallery experience, the launch of a new website and the acclaimed “Lansdowne” portrait of President George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.
This February, the gallery welcomes two new additions: the official portrait of former President Barack Obama, a new National Portrait Gallery commission by contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley (on view beginning Feb. 13), and the 1843 daguerreotype of President John Quincy Adams by Philip Haas—the earliest known photographic likeness of a U.S. President (on view). Also, temporarily on display (now through Feb. 27), is the original print of the rarely shown “cracked-plate” photograph of President Abraham Lincoln, taken by Alexander Gardner just weeks before the Lincoln’s assassination. These new additions will be further complemented by the Portrait Gallery’s launch of a new app, Smartify, and the new “America’s Presidents” publication.
Highlights of the “America’s Presidents” gallery also include the iconic “Athenaeum” portrait of Washington (1796) by Gilbert Stuart, the portrait of Andrew Jackson (1824) by Thomas Sully and the 1917 casts of Lincoln’s “life masks” (1860 and 1865) that were originally created by Leonard Volk and Clark Mills.
Portraits of the Presidents
Near the end of a President’s term, curators at the National Portrait Gallery offer suggestions for artists who might be appropriate for the President and First Lady, who then make the final decision on the artists. The Portrait Gallery commissions the portraits, which are added to its permanent collection. The President’s portrait is put on display in the “America’s Presidents” exhibition. The First Lady’s portrait will be displayed elsewhere in the museum.
The National Portrait Gallery began commissioning portraits of the President with George H.W. Bush in 1994 and added commissions of the First Lady beginning with Hillary Clinton in 2006. Past commissions are:
- George H.W. Bush by Ronald Sherr (1994–1995)
- Bill Clinton by Nelson Shanks (2005)
- George W. Bush by Robert A. Anderson (2008)
- Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley (2018)
- Hillary Clinton by Ginny Stanford (2006)
- Laura Bush by Aleksander Titovets (2008)
- Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald (2018)
The Obama Portraits
Artist Kehinde Wiley—best known for his vibrant, large-scale paintings of African Americans—was selected to create Obama’s portrait. Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, first-prize winner of the Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, was selected to paint Mrs. Obama. Wiley and Sherald are the first African American artists selected to paint the Portrait Gallery’s official portraits. Wiley’s portrait of Obama will be installed in the “America’s Presidents” gallery, and Sherald’s painting of Mrs. Obama will be installed in the “Recent Acquisitions” corridor through early November. Both artworks will be on view to the public beginning Feb. 13.
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