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A Portrait of the First Lady — Nancy Reagan

Shikler's portrait of Nancy Reagan will be displayed in the National Portrait Gallery until March 28.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Shikler's portrait of Nancy Reagan will be displayed in the National Portrait Gallery until March 28.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“Very vibrant, that red. It’s the way I remember her, when they were in the White House,” Cheryl Freeman said of the portrait of the late first lady Nancy Reagan hanging in the National Portrait Gallery’s “In Memoriam” space.  

Freeman, of nearby Bowie, Md., was visiting the gallery Monday afternoon with her son, Justin, just a few hours after Aaron Shikler’s “essence of oil” portrait of Reagan was put on display. The 94-year-old wife of former President Ronald Reagan died on Sunday. On a day when flags were lowered to half-mast at the Capitol and on federal buildings throughout the country to honor the former first lady, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery recognized her life and achievements in a more intimate, artistic manner.  

Shikler’s likeness of Reagan graced the cover of Time on Jan. 14, 1985, and was a part of the Time cover collection acquisition in 1988. Shikler died last year.  

Justin Freeman, a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art on his spring break, said the simplicity of the portrait is its strength. “Nowadays, especially for [a magazine] like Time, all this space would be filled up,” he said, adding the image speaks for itself and didn’t need anything cluttering it.  

The “In Memoriam” space is set aside for both planned installations and, when appropriate, events such as Reagan’s death. “We use this space as an area where we can put items that reflect a moment in the nation’s story,” said Marielba Alvarez, public affairs associate for the gallery.  

“She was beautiful. No question about that,” said Janet Roberts, a dermatologist from Portland, Ore., who was taking a break from the American Academy of Dermatology’s annual meeting up the street at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.  

“I was not a great fan of hers, but I admire how steadfast she was,” Roberts said. “I do admire what she did for Alzheimer’s. … As a first lady, she just didn’t disappear into the background,” she continued, alluding to Reagan’s advocacy for Alzheimer’s Disease research. The former president suffered from Alzheimer’s for years before his death in 2004.  

That sentiment about Reagan, both her elegance and her advocacy, has been reflected in the statements from Washington’s corridors of power as well.  

Taking questions from the press at a White House event on Monday, President Barack Obama complimented her for “the extraordinary love that she had for her husband, and the extraordinary comfort and strength she provided him during really hard times.” First lady Michelle Obama will attend Reagan’s funeral on Friday.  

From the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Senate leaders also shared their reflections, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., both praising her in their opening remarks.  

“In 1994, former President Ronald Reagan addressed a letter to his fellow Americans. He said, ‘I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.’ Nancy Reagan shared her very personal experience with that cold and cruel disease, telling Americans of the terrible pain and loneliness that accompanied Alzheimer’s very, very long goodbye. But she never gave in or gave up,” McConnell said on the floor.  

Back at the Portrait Gallery, a steady mix of tourists, downtown workers on lunch break, student groups and the like passed the relatively small portrait that hangs across from a larger, more verbose painting of Kevin Spacey as his fictional character, President Francis Underwood from the series “House of Cards.”  

Many people marveled at how quickly the gallery retrieved the portrait from storage and had it displayed.  

“That was fast,” said Dan Decena, who worked at the Treasury Department during the Reagan years and is now retired.  

Even the ominous glare of the fictional Underwood, nor nearby portraits of the glitterati such as Justin Timberlake or Neil deGrasse Tyson seemed to  detract from Reagan’s visage. The former first lady was an actress, too, and the gallery’s mini-biography next to the portrait reminds viewers of that part of her life story.  

“I didn’t remember she was an actress!” Cheryl Freeman said. One of her roles was even opposite her husband, in “Hellcats of the Navy.”  

“She’s the Hollywood type,” Decena said, pointing to the bright red dress she wore for Shikler’s portrait.  

Decena also noted she was a graduate of Smith College, which was on his mind because a friend’s mother, a contemporary of Reagan’s at Smith named Cynthia Lord, just recently died.  

The portrait stands on its own outside as a work of art, according to many of those reflecting on it.  

“What I like about this is her direct, frank gaze. I think the simplicity is wonderful,” Roberts said.  

“Very simple. Very elegant, and very bright,” Almudena Becher, who was visiting Washington from New Jersey, said of the portrait.  

In the condolence book placed out by gallery staff, a few entries reflected similar thoughts.  

“Beautiful! Inside and out,” read an entry from Mark, Linda and Emma Shobe of Fort Worth, Texas. An anonymous entry reflected an additional high-profile policy mantle she took up: “Just Say ‘No’ :)”.  

Meanwhile, the former first lady will lay in repose Wednesday and Thursday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. She will be buried next to her husband.  

Her portrait will be on display at the Portrait Gallery through March 28.  

Contact Dick at and follow him on Twitter at @jasonjdick.

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