National Portrait Gallery Presents “One Life: Marian Anderson”

Major Exhibition Exploring the Life of the Celebrated Singer Opens June 28
May 15, 2019
News Release
marian anderson portrait

Credit: “Marian Anderson” by Beauford Delaney, oil on canvas, 1965. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art; Photo by Travis Fullerton ©Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Estate of Beauford Delaney, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator

Media preview:   Friday, June 28; 10 to 11:30 a.m.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery will present “One Life: Marian Anderson,” an exhibition exploring the life of the famed contralto, her achievements and how she became a symbol of the civil rights movement. Recognized as one of the greatest American singers of the 20th century, Anderson is perhaps best remembered for her legendary performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where she sang in 1939 after segregationist policies barred her from theaters across Washington, D.C. However, this exhibition broadens the focus, delving into underexplored moments of Anderson’s decades-long career as a celebrated singer and diplomat. It also highlights the ways she inspired creatives ranging from Harlem Renaissance painter Beauford Delaney to fashion photographer Irving Penn.

“One Life: Marian Anderson” will be on view June 28 through May 17, 2020. The Portrait Gallery exhibition is curated by Leslie Ureña, associate curator of photographs. It will coincide with two Institution-wide initiatives organized by the Smithsonian including the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, “Because of Her Story,” and the 2019 celebration of the Smithsonian’s Year of Music.

Born in Philadelphia in 1897, Anderson’s talent and expertise as a celebrated vocalist made it possible for her to test and break barriers for performers of color in an era of racial segregation. Anderson faced intolerance in everything from her musical training to where she could eat and sleep while on tour. Yet her impeccable voice led her to stages all over the world and earned her numerous accolades and awards. She was a woman of many “firsts” who went on to become the first African American singer to perform at a presidential inauguration and to sign on as a soloist with New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. At the same time, she was reluctant to speak directly about civil rights, preferring instead to serve as a role model for others.

“Marian Anderson grappled with her role as a symbol for African American equality and civil rights,” Ureña said. “Her life and career have inspired many, and I hope that the exhibition will introduce audiences to Anderson’s multi-faceted story.”

The exhibition will reveal aspects of Anderson’s life and legacy through photographs, documents, paintings, historical film footage and other materials from the artist’s childhood and rise to fame through her retirement. On view will be Anderson’s NAACP Spingarn Medal, which First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt awarded to her in 1939; photographs of the singer with legendary composers Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein; and portraits by renowned artists and photographers including Beauford Delaney, William H. Johnson, Gordon Parks, Irving Penn and Robert Scurlock. “One Life: Marian Anderson” will include loans from a variety of prestigious institutions, with many of them coming from her personal papers now held at the University of Pennsylvania.

The National Portrait Gallery’s “One Life” exhibition series dedicates one full gallery to the biography of a single individual, offering deep scholarship and a chance to showcase different aspects of the person’s life. The museum’s “One Life” room has featured Katharine Graham, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Sandra Day O’Connor, Thomas Paine, Elvis Presley, Ronald Reagan, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, Dolores Huerta, Babe Ruth, Sylvia Plath, and a thematic exhibition dedicated to the year 1968.

“One Life: Marian Anderson” has been made possible by the Guenther and Siewchin Yong Sommer Endowment Fund. The project also received support from the National Portrait Gallery’s Women’s Initiative Leadership Committee including Capital One and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. Additional support for the interactive kiosk was provided by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.

For more information on the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, “Because of Her Story,” visit For more information on the Smithsonian’s Year of Music, visit

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 American story.

The National Portrait Gallery is part of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture at Eighth and F streets N.W., Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Connect with the museum at, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.


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Concetta Duncan

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Karen Vidángos

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