The “America’s Presidents” exhibition at Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is more than about portraits.
There’s historical context. The Gallery has grouped the portraits into six historical chapters, each with its own explanatory text. Five of these revolve around a particular era, each with one U.S. President anchoring it – George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
A sixth section examines the more recent history of the presidency in a global way, without reference to chief executives but rather to issues that challenge us, like climate change.
The exhibition doesn’t shy away from the contradictions of Presidents. It contains an Indian peace medal in the section on Jackson, known for his campaign against the Native Americans.
The touch screen summarizes each President under the categories of “Legacy,” “Challenges,” “Major Acts,” and “Campaign.” In the case of the five anchor Presidents, an additional category delves into the “Personal” as well.
The touch screen may be the most popular feature for those who like their exhibits to be interactive. Visitors can zoom in and out on the images of the Presidents and on any of the 800 3-D objects the Gallery has uploaded from its collection.
There are interesting tidbits to learn.
Lyndon Johnson was unhappy with the portrait Patrick Oliphant made of him – the only one that includes a scene of Washington, D.C. in the background.
Some Presidents appear in photographs as well as portraits. Ronald Reagan is pictured with Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, in poses that clearly demonstrate their affable relationship.
One part of the exhibit featuring Douglas Chandor’s oil painting of Franklin D. Roosevelt includes a small sketch at the bottom of the President’s meeting with Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It never materialized, because Stalin refused to pose.
Some famous artists contributed portraits such as Norman Rockwell’s portrayal of Richard Nixon, and Elaine de Koonig’s “neo-impressionistic” depiction of John F. Kennedy in swaths of green, gold, and light blue.
Another interesting fact: When the time comes for their portraits, Presidents now get to choose their artist, a tradition started by George H. W. Bush.
If your memory is a little dim on Presidential history, you can pick up a brochure in the gallery space, showing each chief executive’s image and his years in office.
The Portrait Gallery is the only place outside the White House where visitors can view a complete collection of presidential portraits. The permanent exhibition reopened to the public on Sept. 22 after 18 months of extensive renovations, which included analysis and careful conservation of Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington.
“Conservators from the Museum Conservation Institute and the Portrait Gallery used ultraviolet light, infrared reflectography and X-ray images of the painting to provide information about Stuart’s materials and working processes,” said Kate Lemay, a historian at the Portrait Gallery and head historian for “America’s Presidents.” “Our head of conservation, Cindy Lou Molnar removed an old varnish. You can now ‘feel’ the velvet of Washington’s clothing.”
Lemay also pointed out the extended hand of the “Father of Our Country,” emphasizing that he was a President, not a dictator.
For visitors who were not living in the area when “America’s Presidents” first opened, the aesthetic changes to the exhibition space itself won’t be visible. But the Portrait Gallery describes them as a fresh-color palette, period-style architectural window treatments, and the installation of custom carpets throughout.
A major addition is that all text – written by Lemay – is in English and Spanish.
Expecting to see the current President’s portrait? Not yet, she explained. Chief executives are invited to have portraits done only when they’re leaving office.
The National Portrait Gallery is at Eighth and F Streets, NW, in Washington, D.C.
It is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. It is closed only on Christmas Day.
For more information, call 202-63-1000 or visit their website at www.npg.si.edu.