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National Portrait Gallery Celebrates American Women in Paris, 1900-1939

In the early 1900s, Anne Estelle Rice, a notable American artist in Paris, painted a striking self-portrait that broke conventional norms. Utilizing the vivid colors and rough brushwork of Fauvism, Rice depicted herself amidst a still life of flowers and fruit. In the painting, her face is framed with blue eyebrows, green shadows, and a blue kerchief, contrasting sharply with the bright red flowers and fruit around her. Her white face seems almost washed out, yet her expression exudes a witty self-confidence.

“She did not beautify herself by any means,” says Robyn Asleson, curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery. Instead, Rice compels the viewer to appreciate her as a painter first, not just a subject of beauty. This bold self-presentation forces an acknowledgment of her artistic prowess.
Self-Portrait, Anne Estelle Rice (1877 – 1959) c. 1909-10, oil on canvas

Living nearly a decade in the liberating atmosphere of early 20th-century Paris allowed Rice to develop her avant-garde style. Despite being considered a leader among the Modernists in Paris by her contemporaries, her work was largely unrecognized back in America.

The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit, Brilliant Exiles: American Women in Paris, 1900-1939, shines a spotlight on women like Rice whose achievements have been overlooked. This exhibit tells their stories and highlights their contributions to the birthplace of modernism.
Thérèse Bonney, Jean Lurçat (1892 – 1966),1933, oil on masonite, University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; Bequest of Thérèse Bonney, Class of 1916
Self-Portrait, Loïs Mailou Jones (03 Nov 1905 – 09 Jun 1998)1940, casein on board. Smithsonian American Art Museum, bequest of the artist.

Brilliant Exiles, which opened on April 26, features nearly eighty artworks representing sixty American cultural influencers who migrated to Paris from the early 1900s until World War II. These women defied the social norms of their time, stepping away from the constraints of their American upbringing in pursuit of personal and professional fulfillment.

The exhibit explores how Paris provided a sanctuary from the sexism, racism, homophobia, and narrow-mindedness prevalent in America. The city’s enriching artistic environment allowed these women to explore their creativity, resulting in significant cultural shifts and unprecedented levels of personal freedom and self-expression.

According to Asleson, the women in the exhibition did not move to Paris on a whim. They sought transformative experiences, ultimately altering their lives, the 20th century, and the cultural landscape of Paris.

The exhibit includes a wide range of artistic styles and mediums, from paintings and drawings to sculptures, photographs, and even a bronze bas-relief. This diversity reflects the varied backgrounds and pursuits of the featured women.
Portrait of Emily Crane Chadbourne, Tsuguharu Foujita (1886 – 1968) 1922, tempera and silver leaf on canvas. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Emily Crane Chadbourne.

An exuberant 1936 advertisement for Josephine Baker’s performance at the Folies Bergère occupies a significant portion of the gallery. This more than ten-foot-tall lithograph highlights Baker’s immense charisma and status, but also the commodification of her image.

The exhibition also emphasizes the contributions of Black American women in Paris. Dr. Terri Francis noted that these women found freedom and opportunities in Paris that allowed them to pursue their interests. This narrative addresses a historical gap that often focuses solely on male artists like Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

Asleson aimed to counter the traditional recounting of American modernist history, which often centers on white, heterosexual men like Ernest Hemingway. The #MeToo movement and subsequent societal shifts inspired Asleson to highlight women who sought to make their mark in a male-dominated world.
Sylvia Woodbridge Beach, Berenice Abbott (17 Jul 1898 – 9 Dec 1991),1928, gelatin silver print. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

The exhibit is a celebration of the unorthodox lives of these women, who pursued self-realization amid biases and marginalization. For instance, the interplay of different portraits of Natalie Clifford Barney, painted by her lovers and family, reveals the complex relationships and perspectives around these women.
Josephine Baker, Paul Colin (27 Jun 1892 – 17 Aug 1985) 1927, lithograph with pochoir coloring on paper. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; bequest of Jean-Claude Baker.

The exhibition catalog is a valuable companion, offering expanded biographies and additional images, alongside essays from scholars. An accompanying podcast delves into notable pieces like Romaine Brooks’ self-portrait, revealing the intricate layers of her representation.

Brooks, after a tumultuous early life, found freedom in Paris, where she defied gender and sexual norms. Her 1923 self-portrait, featuring masculine attire and androgynous presentation, embodies her resilience and flamboyance. Asleson describes Brooks as a survivor and a phoenix rising from the ashes.

On the exhibit’s opening weekend, visitors were visibly moved. One observer summed up the exhibit’s impact, calling Brooks simply a “badass.”

The Brilliant Exiles: American Women in Paris exhibit is free and available at the National Portrait Gallery until February 23, 2025. Related public events include a curator-led tour by Robyn Asleson on May 19 and a June 27 panel discussing Josephine Baker’s career as a US spy during World War II.

Header Image: Self-Portrait, Romaine Brooks (1 May 1874 – 7 Dec 1970) 1923, oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of the artist.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine