Here at FFL, we have a soft spot for First Ladies. Before we were Future Female Leaders, we were Future First Ladies, because so often first ladies ARE leaders. They are inspirations to people all over the world and have such a unique opportunity to change the world for the better through their philanthropy. 

Being a DC resident, I’m also a big fan of museums, so hearing that the National Portrait Gallery was doing a First Ladies exhibit made my day! But of course…a pandemic means that museums are closed for safety reasons. That hasn’t stopped the exhibit from coming online though–and giving it a chance to reach even more people–something I think these First Ladies would love. 

From the gallery, “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States,” is 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.

Whether you’re a Portrait Gallery super fan, a history buff on the first ladies, or somewhere along those spectrums, you should definitely check out this new exhibit–available through May 23, 2021. 

I think we all have our favorite first ladies–or at least I do, it’s Laura Bush—but I loved seeing (even virtually) the portraits of these women–past and present. Portraiture is such a fascinating art form–and it has really evolved over the years. If you aren’t listening to the Portrait Gallery’s podcast, you’re really missing out. I’m hoping they’ll do a full episode of this exhibit as well and take a deep dive into some of these portraits–and how the way we have portrayed or thought about first ladies through the years has changed. 

Back when Michelle Obama’s portrait was revealed, a moment went viral when young Parker Curry became amazed at seeing the portrait. It inspired the picture book Parker Looks Up, an absolute tear-jerker, all about the beauty of seeing yourself and people who look like you represented so beautifully in museums. But I also think part of what Parker was drawn to was the intimate power and poise depicted in these first ladies portraits, and I am in awe standing in front of all of them, honestly. 

I recommend going through the exhibit–online or in person when that’s an option–on your own, but I want to highlight some of my favorite parts. 

Our nation’s first First Lady was none other than Martha Washington, and her portrait feels, to me, very familiar, even though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it. It feels conventional, soft, mothering. They don’t try to make her look older or fancier than she was–something that I think leans into her and George’s roles as the “founding” parents of our country.  There’s also a beautifully done hair-piece/hat/bonnet situation going on that almost looks like a halo around her head.  The piece is also unique because we do not know the exact artist, but we know the portrait is based on an initial work of Martha done by famed presidential portrait artist Gilbert Stuart, who painted the Washington portrait we know best. 

I was also drawn to the “Gilded Age” portrait of Caroline Harrison–the wife of Benjamin Harrison who also served as the first President General of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She’s standing in this one–almost like her own presidency, as opposed to many of the other portraits that feature the first lady seated. She’s decadently dressed, holding a hand fan, and the background looks very typical of European portraiture of the time. 

Mamie Eisenhower looks like a Pretty-in-Pink Cinderella in her dress! Totally gorgeous but also so of the time, which is fascinating. Jackie Kennedy’s is almost alarmingly focused on her face, but it’s interesting to see the White House in the background, something not seen in the other portraits. Laura Bush’s is gorgeous, of course, but also cool because it features her holding a book–a representation of her philanthropic focus and her career!

Finally, I wanted to see what the exhibit had for Melania–since I wasn’t sure if there had been an official portrait of her done yet. Hers is a photograph–almost a great model headshot–which of course captures her beauty, but it’s such an interesting comparison to the more artistic renderings of first ladies, including Michelle Obama. It will be interested to see what future versions of this exhibit include–maybe she’ll get her oil portrait in due time. 

Give the exhibit a look, and let us know your favorite portraits and why!

Aryssa D
FFL Cabinet Member