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A Monthly Culture Matrix For the Cosmopolitan Traveler

First Ladies of the United States

National Portrait Gallery / Washington, D.C. / Art

“A woman is like a teabag,” Eleanor Roosevelt is thought to have said. “You never know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” This virtual exhibition steeps viewers in the official images as well as the backstories of America’s First Ladies. Covering 250 years, it is also a timeline of shifting approaches toward portraiture and femininity. The oil painting of Martha Washington, for instance, is deeply maternal, while the oil of Frances Cleveland—the youngest-ever first lady—shows a growing American taste for a more impressionistic approach. In 2018, Amy Sherald’s momentous portrayal of Michelle Obama was modern to the max, a painting that captures the former First Lady’s passion for progressive art and culture. Melania Trump’s photographic portrait (a stopgap until her official portrait is unveiled) stands in sharp contrast to her predecessor. Dressed in black, her arms crossed tightly over her chest, she aims a supermodel stare at the camera, something between a smile and a scowl. The picture’s only sparkle comes from two diamond rings. And is that a window in the background, or a web? —C.J.F.

National Portrait Gallery 8th St NW & F St NW, Washington, DC 20001, United States
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