Portrait Talk: Martha Washington

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In light of March being Women’s History Month, the National Portrait Gallery has devoted its Thursday night Face-to-Face portrait talks to first ladies—first, Dolley Madison, then Lady Bird Johnson and last week was Martha Washington, with senior historian Sidney Hart speaking about Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished portrait of Martha.

I ventured over particularly keen on what Hart might say about the 1796 portrait, given that it was recently used by forensic anthropologists to create an image of what Martha would have looked like in her 20s. If you missed the buzz back in early February, curators at Mount Vernon tried to revamp the first ladies image in an exhibition. They used a pair of purple sequined heels that Martha wore on her wedding day, admittedly trendy for her day, and a new portrait inspired by the composite image of the younger, more gracile Martha as proof that she wasn’t as frumpy as people tend to think. (And dowdy, gray hair is what people tend to think.)

I was a bit ashamed to steer the question and answer session after Hart’s talk to the "hot or not" debate that the media had weeks ago, especially given the women’s history bent of the series, but I was curious.

Of the composite portrait, Hart said, "I don’t believe it’s valid. It looks like a glamorous woman circa 2009. Martha was always described as very small but kind of plump. But the picture they have is almost skeletal and that runs against all contemporary description of what Martha looked like."

At the time of the Mount Vernon exhibition, one of its curators suggested that maybe portraits were made of Martha in her old age so that the young nation appeared more stately, distinguished and legitimate. That seemed plausible to me, and another women in attendance at the talk would tell me later that she was comforted by seeing an image of an older Martha even in our time. But, when I asked Hart what he thought about this, he reminded the group that, "Portraits are very rare in the 18th century so you don’t have many of them even from the wealthy. The earliest likeness I’ve ever seen of Martha was of her in her early 40s. Naturally, there is going to be more of Martha as she’s older and she’s First lady. It’s not like now where you can direct images and kind of construct a personality or persona by what images you use."

The next and last Face-to-Face in the "Ladies, first at the Portrait Gallery" series is tonight, Thursday, March 26. Erin Carlson Mast, curator of Lincoln’s cottage, will be speaking about Pierre Morand’s portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln.

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