Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery Offers a Presidential Exhibit


As part of its gallery exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution offers installations featuring multiple portraits of 43 U.S. Presidents. The centerpiece of the presidential gallery is the famous “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington painted by Rhode Island native Gilbert Stuart in 1796. Also included in the presidential exhibits is the famous “cracked-plate” photograph of Abraham Lincoln taken by Alexander Gardner in 1865 just months before Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater. In addition to Washington and Lincoln, the Smithsonian also highlights the presidencies of Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D Roosevelt.

In 2001, the Lansdowne portrait, named after William Petty FitzMaurice, the first Marquess of Lansdowne, to whom the portrait was originally gifted, was put up for sale by its previous owner, Lord Dalmeny of London, for $20 million. After reading about the sale in the Wall Street Journal, the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation of Las Vegas purchased the portrait and gave an additional $10 million to the Smithsonian to construct a permanent place for it in the gallery as well as provide for an education program. The heavily symbolic portrait features an oratorically posed Washington turning down a third term of office. By him on the table is an array of the books and papers which came to symbolize the American struggle for independence. In addition to the original at the National Portrait Gallery, a 19th-century copy of the Lansdowne portrait also hangs in the East Room of the White House.

In March of 2015, the Smithsonian Institution will offer a special exhibit centered on Gardner’s famous cracked-plate photo of Lincoln. The iconic photo was once thought to be the last photograph of him before he was assassinated in April of 1865 but it has now been dated to February of that year. Lincoln’s wrinkled and care-worn face, deep-set eyes and characteristically wry smile greet the viewer in that warm manner that he was known for. The crack in the plate, made just after Gardner took the photo, breaks across Lincoln’s forehead in a fashion that some think prophetically looks forward to his assassination.

The exhibits also feature the famous presidential life masks of Lincoln. The masks on display are copies made in 1917 of the one completed in 1860 before the Civil War began by sculptor Leonard Volk and another completed in February of 1865 in the closing months of the war by Clark Mills. The differences in Lincoln’s facial features between one and the other are striking. In 2011, the Lincoln life masks were photographed using laser photogrammetry techniques so 3d digital models of them could be made. The project is part of an ongoing effort by the Smithsonian to digitize its collections, only 1 percent of which are displayed to the public in its gallery exhibits.

The post-war presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton are each given attention in the portrait galleries at the Smithsonian Institution. Among the displays for Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Carter and George H.W. Bush are satirical sculptures of the Pulitzer Prize winning caricaturist Pat Oliphant. In 1998, Pat Oliphant’s comical portraits were placed alongside other political satirists in the Library of Congress collections. Also included in the displays at the National Portrait Gallery are the latest additions to the presidential collections: the Portrait of George W. Bush by Robert Anderson and the Portrait of First Lady Laura Bush by Alexsander Titovets.

By Steven Killings

The Smithsonian Institute
Donald W. Reynolds Foundation
The Library of Congress

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