Less glory, more humanity. That’s the goal of the National Portrait Gallery’s modernized exhibition of American presidents, a show that offers an honest look at the strengths and weaknesses of America’s leaders and the growth of presidential power.
Andrew Jackson’s brief biography mentions both his expansion of the vote and “his punitive Indian policies.” Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to promote world peace are noted alongside his “regressive actions with regard to women’s voting rights and other civil liberties.” John Quincy Adams’s intelligence is hindered by his “tactless temperament,” while Bill Clinton’s biography explains that “his denial of a sexual relationship with a White House intern, while under oath, led to his impeachment.”
“We‘re hoping to address the histories that are difficult as well as the history we celebrate,” NPG Historian Kate Lemay said.
Reopening Friday, the renovated exhibition includes more text than the previous version, and all of it in Spanish and English. The Smithsonian museum adopted a bilingual policy in 2014, with the hopes of presenting all exhibitions in English and Spanish by next year. The first special exhibition with dual language text opened last year; “America’s Presidents” represents the first permanent exhibition to feature Spanish and English text.
The presidents are grouped into six thematic sections that address the social changes in the country — westward expansion, the Civil War, social reforms — and how the power of the presidency was linked to them.
A letter from George Washington, an early campaign button for Abraham Lincoln and a political cartoon about Franklin D. Roosevelt add much-appreciated texture to the many formal portraits. This expansive approach also allows the museum to add images of a few women — first ladies and presidential children — to the all-boys club.
“Our country thinks of its history in terms of who is president,” Chief Curator Brandon Fortune said.
The museum’s prized full-length portrait of Washington — the Lansdowne portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796 — returns to its place of honor at the gallery’s entrance, luminous after an 18-month restoration. Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan are given expanded treatments.
Many of the portraits are by well-known artists, including Norman Rockwell (Richard Nixon) Chuck Close (Clinton) and Elaine de Kooning (Kennedy).
Among the museum’s most popular exhibits, the presidents gallery also sparks criticism from visitors who see slights and bias in the presentation. “People bring politics into the space,” said Fortune with a shrug. “Everyone has an opinion.”
Lemay says their factual approach should thwart any controversy. “If you stick to the history, it will speak for itself,” she said.
The exhibition features digital tables where visitors can learn more about the presidents and their era. There are tabs for legacy, challenges, major achievements and campaign for each officeholder, with letters and photographs as illustrations. “These are like sound bites, to get people into it,” Lemay said.
The six-month renovation updates the previous exhibit, which opened in 2006 and remained on view until earlier this year. The 44th president — Barack Obama — is represented by a diptych by Close until the commissioned portrait is unveiled early next year. Museum officials remain mum on the identity of the artist and the exact date it will go on view.
As is the custom, a portrait of President Trump will be added to the exhibition once he leaves office.