National Portrait Gallery Presents “Brilliant Exiles: American Women in Paris, 1900–1939”

On View April 26–Feb. 23, 2025
March 27, 2024
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Sepia-toned picture of woman smiling, dancing on a stage with hands on opposite knees.

“Josephine Baker” by Waléry, gelatin silver print, 1926. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery will present “Brilliant Exiles: American Women in Paris, 1900–1939,” highlighting the myriad ways that American women contributed to the city’s vibrant modernist milieu. This is the first exhibition to focus on the impact of American women on Paris—and of Paris on American women—from the turn of the 20th century until the outbreak of World War II.  

Through portraiture and biography, the exhibition illuminates the accomplishments of more than 60 convention-defying women who crossed the Atlantic to pursue professional goals and lead authentic lives. “Brilliant Exiles: American Women in Paris, 1900–1939” is curated by Robyn Asleson, curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery, and will be on view from April 26 through Feb. 23, 2025. A press preview with the curator will be held Thursday, April 25, at 10 a.m. RSVP to obusekge@si.edu.

Featured in the exhibition of nearly 80 artworks will be portraits of cultural influencers, such as Sylvia Beach, Josephine Baker, Natalie Clifford Barney, Elsie de Wolfe, Isadora Duncan, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Zelda Fitzgerald, Janet Flanner, Peggy Guggenheim, Theresa Helburn, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Florence Mills, Anaïs Nin, Rose O’Neill, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Samuels Stein, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Anna May Wong. As foreigners in a cosmopolitan city, these “exiles” escaped the constraints that limited them at home as a result of prejudices based on gender, class, race, and sexual orientation. Many used their newfound freedom to pursue culture-shifting experiments in a variety of fields, including art, literature, design, publishing, music, fashion, journalism, theater and dance. An impressive number rose to preeminence as cultural arbiters, not merely participating in important modernist initiatives but leading them. The progressive ventures they undertook while living abroad profoundly influenced American culture and opened up new possibilities for women.

“By bringing the experiences of American women to the fore, ‘Brilliant Exiles’ provides a counternarrative to conventional histories of Americans in Paris that focus on the interwar period and the ‘Lost Generation’ of men such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Asleson said. “The exhibition will highlight alternative approaches to modernism developed by women, as well as the enterprises through which they catalyzed creativity and forged interconnected communities.”

The exhibition reveals the dynamic role of portraiture in articulating the new identities that American women were at liberty to develop in Paris, with works by artists including Berenice Abbott, Alice Pike Barney, Romaine Brooks, Anne Goldthwaite, Loïs Mailou Jones, Henri Matisse, Isamu Noguchi, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Anne Estelle Rice, Augusta Savage, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Laura Wheeler Waring and Marguerite Zorach.

The richly illustrated 288-page catalog, published by the National Portrait Gallery and Yale University Press, will feature essays by Asleson and scholars Zakiya R. Adair, Samuel N. Dorf, Tirza True Latimer and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, as well as a foreword by Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery. The book will officially be released May 28. A series of public programs inspired by the exhibition will take place at the Portrait Gallery through winter 2025. For more on related events, visit npg.si.edu/events.

The exhibition will travel to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky (March 29, 2025 to June 22, 2025) and the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia, Athens (July 19, 2025 to Nov. 2, 2025).

“Brilliant Exiles: American Women in Paris, 1900–1939” is presented by Chanel, Inc. and the Terra Foundation for American Art. This project received federal support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative Pool, administered by the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum.

National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the multifaceted story of the United States through the individuals who have shaped American culture. Spanning the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the nation’s story.        

The National Portrait Gallery is located at Eighth and G streets N.W., Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Connect with the museum at npg.si.edu and on Facebook, Instagram, X and YouTube.

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SI-99-2024

Solo Medios 

Concetta Duncan

202-633-9989

duncanc@si.edu

Gabrielle Obusek

202-633-8299

obusekge@si.edu

@smithsoniannpg, #myNPG

Exhibitions