From Washington to Obama – “America’s Presidents” at the National Portrait Gallery
When the National Portrait Gallery scheduled an extensive renovation of the museum’s “America’s Presidents,” the exhibition briefly closed from February 26 through March 23. A temporary exhibition has now been installed in the west gallery on the second floor and will remain on view until September 4. The newly restored gallery space will reopen on September 22, 2017.
“America’s Presidents,” the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, is the museum’s most popular exhibition, so a seven-month closure was ruled out. “We don’t want to get letters from school groups saying they are disappointed that they didn’t get to see the presidents,” said David C. Ward, senior historian and director of scholarly programs, National Portrait Gallery. The temporary home for the nation’s 44 presidential images offers visitors a special treat: two woodburytype portraits of former President Barack Obama by Chuck Close. (Obama’s official portrait for the museum has yet to be commissioned.)
Also on display in the space is “Hindsight Is Always 20/20” by contemporary artist Luke DuBois. Working with the state of the union addresses of 41 presidents, ending with George W. Bush, DuBois created “word clouds,” pulling words and phrases from these speeches and arranging them like an optician’s eye chart. The result is a snapshot of what major issues occupied each president as he addressed the nation.
Refurbishing the permanent exhibition, as well as setting up its temporary home, is “an enormous undertaking,” according to Ward. “We’ve been open for ten years, and there’s been a desire to redo the exhibition, from the lights to the historical context,” he said. Besides the 44 paintings, the show also includes a priceless bust of George Washington, housed in a glass case that requires proper security precautions. Still, Ward said the museum’s staff was up to the challenge. “You don’t want to get bored as curators,” he said.
David C. Ward
Ward, who is a walking encyclopedia on presidential history, led a press tour through the temporary exhibition on March 23 before it opened to the public. Besides sharing insights and anecdotes about each president, Ward explained the complexities involved with structuring and maintaining such a popular exhibition. Each president, for example, has his portrait in the exhibition, no matter his place in history. “Franklin Pierce, a mediocre president, is given equal stature to Lincoln,” Ward said. “James Buchanan, considered the worst president, sat in office in the winter of 1860-1861, when the south seceded.” Although Lincoln was elected in November, he was not inaugurated until March, making Buchanan “the lamest of lame ducks.”
The passage of time often changes the public’s opinion of a president. Harry Truman, for example, was not well liked while he was in office. “Truman now gets high marks,” Ward said. “He is seen as a progressive Democrat who was also a straight shooter.” On the flip side, Andrew Jackson, popular while in office, is now vilified for his “belligerent masculinity,” and deplored as an “Indian killer.”
Theodore Roosevelt, who was governor of New York, was distrusted by the party leadership who wanted him out of the state. “They made him vice president for William McKinley,” said Ward. Of course, after McKinley was assassinated, Roosevelt became the nation’s 26th president. “You think history is orderly, but often it is based on caprice and contingency,” Ward noted.
While many of the portraits in the exhibition are part of the museum’s collection, others are borrowed from other institutions or on loan from private collectors. Sometimes the right portrait of a president just isn’t available. After the museum received a letter objecting to Dwight Eisenhower’s portrait that showed him in a military uniform, the museum had to search for a replacement. The one now on display came from Susan Eisenhower, a granddaughter, and shows the former president in a blue business suit.
The White House selected Robert Anderson, one of George W. Bush’s Yale classmates, to create the portrait of the 43rd president. The painting shows Bush in an open neck blue shirt relaxing at Camp David. Not all presidents are pleased with the results of the artist’s efforts. Lyndon B. Johnson called his portrait by Peter Hurd “the ugliest thing I ever saw.” That painting, meant to be Johnson’s official White House likeness, now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
And not all artists like their subjects. That was the case with Norman Rockwell who was charged with painting Richard Nixon. According to Ward, Rockwell limited the time he had to spend with Nixon by substituting a friend’s hand for that of the 37th president.
When “America’s Presidents” reopens on September 22, Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington will be back on view, according to Brandon Fortune, chief curator, National Portrait Gallery. In the temporary space, another Stuart portrait of Washington is on view, showing the first president in the black velvet suit he wore on formal public occasions. Fortune said the portrait shows Washington “at his most human.” She also singled out Abraham Lincoln’s portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy which depicts the 16th president in a contemplative pose.
When the newly refurbished gallery opens on September 22, the space will boast improved graphics and lighting. Interactive touch screens will allow visitors to explore each presidency. There will also be a new website and a new edition of the museum’s book of presidential imagery.
Chances are the museum’s most popular exhibition will be even more popular come September.
Photos by Jai Williams
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