Since its creation by an Act of Congress in 1962, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has collected portraits of American Presidents. It holds the only national collection of presidential portraits outside the White House.
“America’s Presidents” lies at the heart of the Portrait Gallery’s mission to tell the American story through significant people who have shaped it. Currently, the exhibition presents an extended display of multiple images of all of the Presidents of the United States, including Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of George Washington, now on loan from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and two portraits of Washington by Gilbert Stuart, on loan from the National Gallery of Art. The exhibition also features whimsical sculptures of Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush by noted caricaturist Pat Oliphant.
The exhibition includes the “cracked-plate” photograph of Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, as well as casts of Lincoln’s face. These life masks—created by Leonard Volk in 1860 and Clark Mills in 1865—are 1917 casts of the originals.
A video in the exhibition includes excerpts from the speeches of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Gerald Ford, Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In another space, visitors may listen to several of Roosevelt’s fireside chats.
The museum collects and displays images of Presidents in a variety of media to fully represent their terms. It also works with the President and First Lady, usually at the end of their term or shortly after, to select an artist to do the portrait that will be displayed in the museum.
The National Portrait Gallery will reinstall its “America’s Presidents” exhibition in four phases beginning in February:
Feb. 26–March 23—“America’s Presidents” will be closed to the public.
March 24–Sept. 4—“America’s Presidents” will be temporarily installed in the west gallery on the second floor. After this month-long closure, the portraits will be installed and remain on view through Sept. 4.
Sept. 5–Sept. 21—“America’s Presidents” will be closed to the public.
Sept. 22—The renovated “America’s Presidents” reopens.
Phase One—“America’s Presidents” Closed Feb. 26–March 23
Phase Two—“America’s Presidents” Temporary Installation Open March 24–Sept. 4
The temporary installation will include “Hindsight Is Always 20/20” by contemporary artist Luke DuBois. DuBois has generated “word clouds” with words and phrases from the state of the union addresses of 41 Presidents. He then presents them in order of most frequent to least frequent word in the form of an eye chart for each President. The result is a startlingly clear snapshot of the lexicon of each presidency, containing a mix of key words and rhetoric unique to each President and the time period in which they served. The words amplify the story the museum tells about the Presidents by highlighting how the issues of the day became part of Americans’ political dialogue and vocabulary. The installation will marry words with images in a way that is both educational and aesthetically appealing.
Phase Three—“America’s Presidents” Closed Sept. 5–Sept. 21
Phase Four—“America’s Presidents” Reopens Sept. 22
After 18 months of conservation and analysis, Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington will be back on view in the newly refurbished “America’s Presidents” gallery. In addition to refreshing the physical space of the presidential exhibition (improved graphics, lighting, paint, etc.) the Portrait Gallery is also enhancing the visitor’s experience through new labels, wall texts and the addition of interactive touch screens that will allow people to explore the context of each presidency and access other visual material. A new website will accompany the permanent installation and a new edition of the museum’s book of presidential imagery will be published. This reimagining of the presidential portraits is a significant undertaking that will confirm the installation as one of the major attractions at the Portrait Gallery.
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