Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

National Portrait Gallery

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 Ward

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.


Brandon Fortune

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

America’s Presidents
National Portrait Gallery
8th and F Streets, NW
Washington, D.C.

One Life: Babe Ruth at the National Portrait Gallery


Even measured against today’s superstar standards, George Herman Ruth would rank among the very best. From the time he began his professional baseball career in 1914, Ruth was the most talked about and written about personality of his day. Yet, because certain areas of a celebrity’s life were deemed off limits, many facts about Ruth were never publicized. “One Life: Babe Ruth” at the National Portrait Gallery sheds a light on the star athlete we never knew.

EXHEE1704“Ruth was able to lead a private life,” said James Barber, historian and exhibition curator during the exhibition’s press opening. “It’s the difference between his era and our era.” Still, Barber pointed out that Ruth was the first athlete to have a publicist, Christy Walsh. Hardly a week went by when Ruth’s name wasn’t in the newspapers, particularly in the New York Daily News after he began playing for the New York Yankees. What was missing were those details about Ruth’s personal life that would most likely create tabloid headlines today, most notably when he and his wife, Helen, suddenly appeared with a 16 month-old girl named Dorothy. Despite dogged efforts by the press to uncover a birth certificate, none was ever found. On his death bed, Ruth told Dorothy that he was her biological father and she later learned that her biological mother was Juanita Jennings, one of Ruth’s many mistresses.

The National Portrait Gallery’s “One Life” exhibition series dedicates a full gallery to highlight the biography of one personality. Others who have had their lives covered in the space include Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Ronald Reagan. Because the space is essentially one small room, what is included in the exhibition hits the highlights of the person’s life. While the basics about Ruth are covered, there are still many surprises.

EXHEE1703Ruth was born in 1895 in Pigtown, a working class area of Baltimore. His father ran a saloon and because young Ruth ran wild and often drank beer behind his father’s back, his home environment was thought to lack discipline. At age seven, he was sent to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a combination of reformatory and orphanage. That exile proved to be a godsend for the young Ruth. Not only did he receive an education, but he learned to play baseball. Although Ruth was left-handed, the Xaverian Brothers who ran the school, insisted that the children write with their right hand. Throughout his life, Ruth was very proud of his handwriting. “His signature was letter perfect,” said Barber. “”He took special note when he signed baseballs and he probably signed hundreds of thousands in his time.”

Because he was raised in an orphanage, Ruth always devoted himself to charitable works and would make himself available to spend time with the children. One of the photos in the exhibition shows him at an orphanage in Tacoma, Washington. A young girl in the front row can be seen clutching a “Ruth’s Home Run” chocolate candy wrapper.

Babe Ruth

Ruth began his baseball career as a pitcher for Jack Dunn’s minor league Baltimore Orioles. (Legend has it that Ruth’s nickname came when he was dubbed “Dunnie’s babe.”) Dunn ran into financial problems and, forced to give up some of his best players, sold Ruth to the Boston Red Sox on July 4, 2014. Ironically, financial problems for the Sox’s owner, Harry Frazee, brought about the sale of Ruth to the New York Yankees. The rest, as they say, is history.

Notes along the exhibition’s walls tell Ruth’s story in succinct and cogent terms. The photos, several credited to anonymous photographers, show Ruth posing with his Red Sox teammates, in his Yankee uniform, and kissing his Yankee bat. A standout is the iconic photograph of an aging Ruth, his back to the camera and his number 3 visible on his uniform. Nat Fein took the photo in 1948, three days before Ruth’s death.

Babe Ruth

“Ruth Quits” and “Babe Ruth Dies” are the two New York Daily News front pages included in the exhibition. Ruth died on August 16, 1948. His open casket laid in state in Yankee stadium for two days. He’s buried in Valhalla, New York.

Ruth’s baseball records have all been broken. In 1974 Hank Aaron broke Ruth’s record for career home runs, a record that has since been surpassed by steroid-tainted Barry Bonds. In 1961, Roger Maris broke Ruth’s record for the most homers in a single season, although an asterisk plagued Maris’ accomplishment for decades because he played more games the Ruth to reach that milestone.

Records aside, Babe Ruth was one for the ages and for all ages. There will never be another player with his talent and charisma. He defined not only baseball but the era in which he lived. And the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is the perfect way to reflect and celebrate this timeless hero.

“One Life: Babe Ruth”
National Portrait Gallery


Babe Ruth
by Nat Fein
Gelatin silver print
Image: 19cm x 23.3cm (7 1/2″ x 9 3/16″), Accurate National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Wife Stands by Babe and Defies Accuser
by Underwood & Underwood
Gelatin silver print
Sheet: 15 × 20.3cm (5 7/8 × 8″)
Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

Babe Ruth in Yankee’s Uniform
by Unidentified Artist
c. 1920
Photo blow-up
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Babe Ruth and other Red Sox pitchers
by Underwood & Underwood
Gelatin paper print
Image/Sheet: 16.5 x 24.6 cm (6 1/2 x 9 11/16″) National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Babe Ruth
by Paolo Garretto
Publication: New York World
Pastel, lithographic crayon and gouache on board Sheet (Accurate): 31.2 × 23.8cm (12 5/16 × 9 3/8″)
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution