Project 1 – Small Format Series


The meaning of portraiture (appearance of the portrait) is often connected to the artist. During the painting process, a story also sneaks into the image that can be read in the end.

The painted portraits illustrate a description of a characteristic posture, expression of the face, light, tonal values, composition and writing in relation to specific and or decisive historical events in the life of the First Lady.

Emphasizing one or more of the above aspects adds value to the realistic representation of the portrait of the First Lady.

Image Study and Features

Research into external characteristics with attention to the historical background and prevailing current events during the term of office.

  • Characteristics in emotion and passions.
  • A picturestory where the First Lady’s expressiveness is central. Admiration becomes wonder in a new image.
  • Recognizable portraits with room for imagination.
  • By accentuating various style elements or certain writing, the portraits each have disctinct expressions.
  • Personal signature, whether or not in the image, makes the portrait of the First Lady more ‘present’.
  • Chronological representation
  • Technique: East-Indian ink on paper
  • Size: 7×6 inch


Additional Context

The accompanying texts, in collaboration with writer Lynn Hiel, transform the images to stories and compliment my feel during the painting process. It also records my personal artistic interpretation interwoven with insight or emotions. This allows the viewer to form a broader image in similarity or event, in which recognisability and authentic representation of the painted portrait play a primary role.

Nancy Reagan
First Lady from 1981 to 1989
40th President: Ronald Reagan

In contrast to the official portraits of many other first ladies, Nancy Reagan’s White House Portrait depicts her smiling candidly and unreservedly. Her lips are slightly parted suggesting a certain openness and directness in her expression. These unique qualities of her smile are central themes in the FLOTUS portrait of Nancy Reagan.

The observer will also notice a diffuse aura of light emanating from the shoulders of Nancy Reagan and extending around her portrait. This luminous glow symbolizes her radiance both in terms of her outward appearance and the inner spaces of her character.

She had an interest in fashion. Her sharp sense of style was often compared, at the time, to that of the notoriously glamorous first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The elegance Nancy projected outward, also extended to an inner beauty. The circle of light portrays her love and devotion to her husband Ronald Reagan. During her term as first lady, it was generally said that behind the scenes Nancy Reagan had a fairly large influence on her husband’s politics. Sometimes she was even criticized for the title she chose for herself, “Assistant to the President.” The public thought she was too close to the president. However, reading her memories of her husband’s term as president, it seems that she always thought of Ronald Reagan as the hero. It has been said that Ronald Reagan’s speeches were more forceful and dynamic when Nancy Reagan stood by his side.

In the twilight years of her husband’s life that were afflicted by the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease, Nancy Reagan cared for him with the love and devotion that had mutually sustained them during their journey through life together. After Ronald Reagan’s death, Nancy Reagan supported her son Ron Reagan Jr. at the 2004 Democratic National Convention where he voiced his support for lifting the Bush-era restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, from which he expected a cure or new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. He said, “We can choose between the future and the past, between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology.”

Looking closely at the painting, the observer will notice a second grey silhouette along the perimeter of Nancy Reagan’s portrait; in essence forming a double-portrait. This vague outline reminds us of Nancy Davis, the pseudonym that Nancy Reagan used during her years as an actor. After a career spanning eleven movies, Nancy ended her film contract to dedicate herself to her husband and her children. The silhouette symbolizes the fading of Nancy Davis as she departed from acting and assumed her role as Nancy Reagan.

Looking further at the context of the portrait, the observer notices round circles in the air. These dots represent parachute jumpers during wartime who descend toward earth from high in the sky. Throughout her term as first lady, Nancy Reagan was committed to ensuring Vietnam War Veterans and their families received the services, care, and benefits they needed and deserved. She also advocated for better healthcare for other vulnerable segments of society including the elderly and children with disabilities. In 1982, she launched the ”Just Say No” campaign to raise awareness about the dangerous effects of drug abuse.

Through the context of light and the pronounced contrast, the portrait captures and conveys the themes of Nancy Reagan — her smile and her radiance.

Harriet Rebecca Lane Johnston
First Lady from 1857 to 1861
15th President: James Buchanan

Harriet Lane was one of thirteen first ladies in United States history who were not married to the President. President James Buchanan, her uncle, was a lifelong bachelor. ‘Hal’ Lane, as her close friends called her, had an interest in European art. When she bequeathed her art collection to the United States government, the Smithsonian Institution called her “The First Lady of the National Collection of Fine Arts.”

In the portrait Mrs. Lane’s gaze is directed towards the observer and her frame is rotated relative to the observer. This position resembles the iconic Mona Lisa by one of the masters of European fine art, Leonardo da Vinci.

In the Mona Lisa, da Vinci painted a mountain landscape that was likely his own composition. It was not a classical landscape with an exact, precise horizon line, but an assemblage of many, diverse lines running in a zig-zag motion across the landscape. The background of Mrs. Lane’s portrait similarly evokes this suggestive quality of a landscape with the motion translated through the medium of East-Indian ink.

Hal was a popular First Lady. Many women at the time imitated her hairstyles and fashion. In the portrait she wears her inaugural ball gown. She had the neckline of this gown lowered by 2.5 inches; daring and unprecedented in 19th century women’s fashion. A prominent, long scarf is also woven into her head and draped over her shoulder. The motion of the scarf framing her face infuses her portrait with a certain tenderness as well as vulnerability associated with her gentleness and popularity.

During her term as First Lady, Mrs. Lane advocated for the rights of Native Americans to have a better quality of life in the United States. The feather-like quality captured in her scarf on the right of her hair and on her left shoulder reflects elements of the ceremonial headdress of the Native Americans.

Elizabeth Kortright Monroe
First Lady from 1817 to 1825
5th President: James Monroe

Elizabeth Kortright Monroe’s term was afflicted by illness. Due to her fragile health, she was unable to fulfill the role of first lady, as she may have wished.

The tension between a desire to lead and powerlessness in the face of illness is captured in Mrs. Monroe’s portrait.

The observer will notice that Mrs. Monroe’s left eye is perceptibly different from her right eye. Her countenance reveals two distinct expressions. In her right eye, there is a presence, attentiveness, benevolence and a drive to fulfill the role of first lady. Her left eye is, although gazing directly at the observer, devoid of any vibrancy; an absent stare of imprisonment, isolation and obscurity.

The dark background symbolizes the obscurity and isolation that overshadowed her term. It is exerting a force that consumes the crumbling contours of her portrait and draws her deeper into the darkness. Across her forehead, her tidy, curly locks are marred by a strange, formless intrusion. The motion in the ink represents the invisible scars caused by the relentless progression of the virus that plagued her life and held her hostage.

During an episode associated with her illness, Mrs. Monroe falls into the hearth and suffers burns. This accident marks her face with visible scars as portrayed on her left cheek.

Stepping back to look at the portrait as a whole, the observer can again sense the motion captured on the canvas. The stifling dominance of the illness that clenched her and the powerful forces of the darkness that pulls her — backwards into obscurity and out of reality.