First Ladies

Highlights from the National Portrait Gallery collection

Betty Ford (1996) by Everett Raymond KinstlerSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

“Why should my husband’s job, or yours, prevent us from being ourselves? Being ladylike does not require silence.” ~ First Lady Betty Ford

Frances Folsom Cleveland (1899) by Anders Leonard ZornSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Today, few would argue that the first lady of the United States holds one of the most prominent social positions in the world. First ladies often help establish the country’s priorities and affect policy outcomes. The role, however, has evolved significantly since Martha Washington’s time. Each first lady has inhabited this complicated and evolving responsibility differently. The following portraits from the National Portrait Gallery's collection provide us with a means to explore the accomplishments, personalities, and lives of many of these exceptional women.

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (c. 1853) by Rembrandt PealeSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

When Martha Dandridge Custis married George Washington, she brought a vast amount of wealth to their marriage. Her property included 17,500 acres of land and over 300 enslaved people. During the Revolutionary War, she often stayed with her husband, now a general in the Continental Army, while he lived in the winter encampments. She contributed food, medicine, and supplies for him and his soldiers. When George Washington became president, Martha Washington left Mount Vernon to support him.

This portrait by Rembrandt Peale is based on a painting by the artist’s father, Charles Willson Peale, whose original hangs in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

Abigail Adams (1804) by Raphaelle PealeSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Abigail Smith Adams challenged the social and political limitations of the time by advocating for women’s rights, education, and the abolition of slavery. She readily expressed her opinions in letters to her husband, John Adams, by reminding him to “Remember the Ladies” as he helped to frame the new nation’s institutions. Always outspoken, Adams struggled to suppress her opinions when her husband served as president.

Dolley Madison (1848) by William S. ElwellSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Dolley Payne Todd Madison was vivacious and outgoing. She cultivated strategic friendships with politicians and their wives. When her husband was serving as secretary of state, Dolley Madison served as an honorary hostess for President Thomas Jefferson. This prepared her for the role of first lady when her husband entered office. Madison’s charisma and intelligence charmed many politicians, making her Wednesday night receptions at the White House the epicenter of Washington society.

Her influence in Washington was commemorated in 1844, when the House of Representatives voted unanimously to reserve a seat for her on the Congressional Floor so that she could attend political debates.

William Elwell painted this portrait of Madison toward the end of her life. He paid close attention to her slightly cloudy blue eyes and her rouged cheeks. The black curls (hairpieces) that peek out from her signature turban hint at her interest in maintaining a hard-won and long-cultivated public persona.

Sarah Childress Polk [605] by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Sarah Childress Polk made her husband's political career the main focus of her life. Up until he entered the White House, she served as his private secretary, handling his correspondence and scheduling his speaking engagements. She was his most trusted advisor, and because she believed that entertainment took away from business, she relied on White House staff to handle the bulk of the hostess duties. Instead, she spent these social occasions speaking with politicians about legislation important to the President’s agenda. This lithograph by Nathaniel Currier is based on a daguerreotype by the photographer John Plumbe Jr.

Abigail Powers Fillmore (c.1840) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

As a young schoolteacher, Abigail Powers fell in love with one of her students, nineteen-year-old Millard Fillmore. After their marriage, she continued teaching to support her husband’s aspirations in law and politics, an unconventional decision for her time. Abigail Fillmore devoted her life to learning, and as first lady, she helped establish a reference library in the White House. She frequently invited popular authors and performers to visit with her at the presidential mansion. The gold chain that hangs from her neck in this portrait would have been attached to a watch to be used to keep up with her busy social schedule.

Harriet Lane (c. 1860-1870) by Attribution: Mathew Brady Studio, active 1844 - 1894Original Source: See this work of art on the National Portrait Gallery website

Harriet Rebecca Lane Johnston served as first lady for her bachelor uncle, James Buchanan. She was passionate about the visual arts and bequeathed her vast painting and sculpture collection to the Smithsonian. Her interest in Native art led her to become an advocate for the welfare of Native peoples and a promoter of indigenous arts. Harriet Johnston was photographed at Mathew Brady Studio sometime between 1860 and 1870. This original glass-plate negative is part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Frederick Hill Meserve Collection.

Mary Todd Lincoln (c. 1860-1870) by Attribution: Mathew Brady Studio, active 1844 - 1894Original Source: See this work of art on the National Portrait Gallery website

Raised in a wealthy Kentucky slave-owning family, Mary Ann Todd Lincoln actively voiced her political opinions throughout her life. While serving as first lady, she encouraged her husband to hire women in the treasury and war departments. Her focus on class position is evidenced in photographs, such as this one, which shows her in a fashionable ball gown. Nearly all of Mary Lincoln’s clothing was sewn by Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, an accomplished seamstress, whose mother was enslaved.

Mary Todd Lincoln (c. 1860-1870) by Attribution: Mathew Brady Studio, active 1844 - 1894Original Source: See this work of art on the National Portrait Gallery website

This photograph of Mary Ann Todd Lincoln, wearing a meticulously fashioned black dress, may have been taken in the autumn of 1863. She would still have been in mourning for her eleven-year-old son, Willie, who died of typhoid fever in February 1862. Three years later, her husband was assassinated.

Mrs. Ulysses S. [Julia Dent] Grant (c. 1864) by Attribution: Mathew Brady Studio, active 1844 - 1894Original Source: See this work of art on the National Portrait Gallery website

Julia Boggs Dent Grant reveled in her role as first lady and White House hostess. Her receptions were lavish, and state dinners featured sophisticated menus prepared by Valentino Melah, an Italian-trained chef. While living in the White House, Grant helped her husband entertain a host of foreign dignitaries, including King Kalākaua and Queen Kapi‘olani of the Sandwich Islands (Hawai‘i), Russia’s Grand Duke Alexis, and a delegation of Japanese political and military leaders. This original glass-plate negative is part of the National Portrait Gallery’s extensive Mathew Brady Studio photography collection.

Lucretia Garfield (c. 1881) by Levin Coburn HandySmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The journalist Mary C. Ames once described Lucretia Randolph Garfield as having a “philosophic mind” that made her not only her husband’s equal “but, in more than one respect, his superior.” Garfield loved literature and the classical world. She was fluent in French, German, Latin, and ancient Greek and spent much of her time in Washington, D.C., reading books that she borrowed from the Library of Congress. When President Garfield died in September 1881, Lucretia Garfield dedicated the rest of her life to the historical preservation of his books and papers.

Rose Elizabeth Cleveland (1885) by John Chester ButtreSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

When bachelor Grover Cleveland assumed the presidency 1885, he asked his unmarried sister, Rose Elizabeth “Libby” Cleveland, to serve as White House hostess. After her brother’s marriage to Frances Folsom, she chose to pursue writing. Cleveland’s first novel, The Long Run, was published in 1886.

In the winter of 1889–90, Rose Cleveland began a relationship with Evangeline Marrs Simpson, a wealthy married woman who eventually became her life partner.

Following the death of Simpson’s second husband, the two women made a home in the Tuscany region of Italy. They remained together until November 1918, when Rose Cleveland succumbed to the Spanish flu.

This portrait was made by John Chester Buttre, a leading portrait engraver who produced stipple and line engravings in honor of several first ladies.

Caroline Harrison (c. 1889) by ClarkSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Caroline Lavinia Scott held a degree in music and taught at the college level before marrying Benjamin Henry Harrison in 1853. Raised in an antislavery household, Harrison participated in the Ladies’ Sanitary Committee, which helped to care for wounded Union soldiers during the Civil War. In the White House, she established the presidential china collection and initiated a mass restoration of the presidential mansion, installing electricity. Before her untimely death, Harrison helped raise money for the establishment of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine on the condition that the school admit women students.

Harrison sat for this photograph shortly before becoming first lady. She posed in profile, which highlighted her curled bangs and knotted bun. In the nineteenth century, such hairstyles required extensive maintenance and resources. Harrison’s style would have elicited great admiration.

Woodrow and Edith Wilson (c. 1919) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

After the death of President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, he married Edith Bolling Galt. A successful and remarkably independent businesswoman, she drove around Washington, D.C., in an electric car. Edith Wilson brought great energy to their union and an innovative spirit to the White House. As first lady during World War I, when gardeners were in short supply, she used sheep to graze on the White House lawn and donated their wool to the war effort. Despite her aversion to suffragists, who in 1917 began picketing outside the White House, Wilson became the first wife of a sitting president to cast a vote in a U.S. election, after the nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920.

Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge (c. 1925) by Clara SipprellSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge was as friendly and outgoing as her husband Calvin Coolidge was stoic and reclusive, and her accessibility was central to his popular appeal. Before marriage, she taught lipreading to students at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, and she remained deeply involved with that institution until the end of her life. She once gave a five-minute speech in sign language at a luncheon for newspaperwomen, reinforcing her advocacy for the education of the deaf.

Lou Henry Hoover (1932) by Harris & Ewing StudioSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Iowa native Lou Henry met her future husband Herbert Hoover while the two were studying geology at Stanford University. The couple traveled the world for his work as a mining engineer, and she became fluent in several foreign languages. As first lady, she rejected restrictive social standards by inviting pregnant women to attend White House functions. She also defied segregationists by hosting Jessie DePriest, the African American wife of a Chicago congressman, at a White House tea for congressional wives. In this photograph, Lou Henry Hoover stands with her dogs, “Weegie” and “Pat.”

Eleanor Roosevelt (1949) by Clara SipprellSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born into an old family of great wealth, but she was remarkably sensitive to the concerns of the underprivileged. Entering the White House during the Great Depression, she expanded her role to advocate for social welfare and emerged as a vital force in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.

When the challenges of World War II drew the president’s attention away from domestic affairs, she continued to be a strong voice for the New Deal’s policies. She took public stands on issues ranging from exploitive labor practices to civil rights.

Roosevelt posed for this photo while attending a luncheon in 1949 with the photographer Clara Sipprell.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1945) by Samuel Johnson WoolfSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

At the height of the Great Depression, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt traveled widely to assess federal relief programs, and during World War II, she flew around the world visiting troops. The activism that characterized Eleanor Roosevelt’s years as first lady did not end with her departure from the White House. As a U.S. delegate to the United Nations (1945–53), she was instrumental in formulating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and securing its ratification by the General Assembly in 1948. This work led many to hail her as the “First Lady of the World.”

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1957) by Yousuf KarshSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Jacqueline lee “Jackie” Bouvier Kennedy worked to make the White House a showplace for the nation’s history and culture. Her interest in historic preservation helped lead to the organization of the White House Historical Association. As first lady, Kennedy experienced the death of her infant son, Patrick, just three months before witnessing her husband’s gruesome assassination in 1963.

Her remarkable poise during this time of unthinkable personal and national tragedy made her a symbol of strength for a nation in mourning. Five years later, she married Aristotle Onassis, and later built a successful career in publishing. This portrait of Kennedy, showing her at her mother’s home in Newport, was made while her husband was serving as a senator.

Lady Bird Johnson (1986 (printed 2009)) by Dennis FaganSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

On November 22, 1963, two hours after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Taylor Johnson became first lady when her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, was sworn into office while aboard Air Force One. She led an unprecedented solo campaign on which she gave forty-seven speeches in eight states in an effort to win back the white Southern vote after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As first lady, Lady Bird Johnson was involved in the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, an initiative that incorporated historic site preservation, natural resource conservation, and environmental protection. For her successful efforts, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.

Richard and Pat Nixon (1953) by Jason HaileySmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

As a woman who had worked hard to support herself through college, Thelma Catherine “Pat” Ryan Nixon was a staunch advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment. As first lady, she often visited hospitals and orphanages, and she traveled extensively. Her commitment to improving accessibility for those wishing to visit the White House resulted in foreign-language pamphlets and the installation of the first wheelchair ramps at the mansion. In this portrait, taken in Los Angeles in 1953, she waves to the crowd while on the campaign trail with her husband, then the vice-presidential candidate.

Betty Ford (1996) by Everett Raymond KinstlerSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

As first lady, Elizabeth “Betty” Anne Bloomer Ford earned both scorn and praise for her pro-choice beliefs and her strong support of the Equal Rights Amendment. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy just weeks after becoming the first lady. Her open encouragement of women to perform self-exams and to seek early medical care is credited with saving millions of lives. After leaving the White House, Ford spoke candidly about her drug and alcohol dependency, which she developed after suffering from a pinched nerve and chronic arthritis.

Rosalynn Carter (1976) by Robert Clark TempletonSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

As a strong advocate of social welfare programs, Eleanor Rosalynn Smith Carter brought voters’ concerns about mental health care with her to the White House in 1977. In addition to serving as honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, she attended cabinet meetings so that she could offer informed answers to the questions she received at public appearances. In 1982, she and her husband founded the Carter Center to promote peace and human rights around the globe.

They jointly received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999. Shortly before Jimmy Carter was elected president, Robert Clark Templeton sketched Rosalynn Carter from two different angles, suggesting her multifaceted character and interests.

Nancy Reagan (1984-1985) by Aaron ShiklerSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Nancy Davis Reagan became her husband’s closest advisor and fiercest protector during a long political career. As first lady, she led the “Just Say No” campaign to educate children about the dangers of illegal drugs. She also supported the passage of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which dramatically increased penalties.

In 1988, Reagan became the first wife of a president to address the General Assembly of the United Nations when she spoke about the impact of drug trafficking.

This likeness by Aaron Shikler shows Nancy Reagan wearing a dress in her signature “Reagan Red.” It ran on the cover of Time magazine and was accompanied by a headline that hailed her as the “White House Co-Star.”

Barbara Bush (c. 1984) by Michael Arthur Worden EvansSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

A strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, Barbara Pierce Bush was pro-choice and fought to destigmatize AIDS. She used her platform as first lady to combat illiteracy, writing several books and hosting a radio program with celebrity guests called “Mrs. Bush’s Story Time.” In 1989, the first lady created the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy to improve access to educational opportunities.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (2006) by Ginny StanfordSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton received a law degree from Yale University. There, she was an editor of the Yale Law Journal and met Bill Clinton, whom she married in 1975. As first lady of the United States, Clinton headed the White House’s Task Force on National Health Care Reform and stoically stood by her husband as he was impeached by Congress during his embattled second term.

Following her service as first lady, Clinton was elected a U.S. senator from New York, served as U.S. secretary of state, and become the first woman to receive the presidential nomination from the Democratic Party.

Ginny Stafford’s painting is the first portrait of a first lady to be commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery. There was so much warmth and humor that I sensed from her in person, and she hadn’t been portrayed like that in public,” Stanford later recalled about her initial meeting with the former first lady. “I felt really excited about the possibility of portraying this side of her.”

Laura Bush (2008) by Aleksander TitovetsSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

When Laura Lane Welch Bush entered the White House, she had been advocating for childhood literacy for decades as a teacher and school librarian. As first lady, her accomplishments included establishing the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries and founding the National Book Festival. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush took a deep interest in women’s education in Afghanistan, using her platform to support to the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF). The Laura W. Bush Library and Women’s Resource Center opened at AUAF in 2013; the university campus moved to Doha, Qatar, in 2021.

First Lady Michelle Obama (2018) by Amy SheraldSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

After graduating from Princeton University, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson earned a law degree from Harvard University before returning to her hometown of Chicago, where she met Barack Obama. As the first lady and as the mother of two daughters, Obama was inspired to reach young people through various health and education initiatives that included Let’s Move, Reach Higher, and Let Girls Learn. The latter fought to ensure that girls worldwide were afforded equal access to learning opportunities.

Since leaving the White House, she has continued to empower young women around the world with the Girls Opportunity Alliance.

Michelle Obama selected Amy Sherald to create her official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. Sherald portrays Obama as both confident and approachable, in a dress by Michelle Smith’s label Milly. The artist’s distinctive approach uses gray for skin color as a way to look beyond the superficial differences of race.

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