Smithsonian American Art Museum Acquires 100 Photographs by the Legendary Photographer Irving Penn

August 9, 2013
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The Smithsonian American Art Museum announced today that it will acquire from The Irving Penn Foundation 100 photographs by the legendary photographer Irving Penn (1917-2009), who is one of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century. Penn is best known for the spare, elegant style he applied to the fashion, still-life and portrait photographs he produced for Vogue. His aesthetic and technical skill earned him accolades in both the artistic and commercial worlds throughout his career.

The 100 photographs given to the museum include rare street photographs from the late 1930s and 1940s, most of which are unpublished; images of post-war Europe; iconic portraits of figures such as Agnes de Mille, Langston Hughes and Truman Capote; color photographs made for magazine editorials and commercial advertising; self-portraits; and some of Penn’s most recognizable fashion and still-life photographs. All the prints were made during the artist’s lifetime and personally approved by him. 

“This extraordinary gift from The Irving Penn Foundation adds breadth and depth to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s holdings,” said Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “The museum’s rich holdings will inspire scholars and researchers to discover the many aspects of this great artist.”

“My colleagues and I at The Irving Penn Foundation are very pleased that such a distinguished institution as the Smithsonian will be the home for this important collection and, through its exhibition and tour, will educate and inform future generations about Irving Penn’s life work,” said Tom Penn, executive director of The Irving Penn Foundation. “My father’s fondness and highest regard for our national museums has guided us in making this donation.”   

Through the acquisition of these photographs, the museum’s collection represents the full spectrum of this major artist’s career. To celebrate this important acquisition, the museum will organize an exhibition of approximately 160 works that will tour following its presentation in fall 2015 at the museum in Washington, D.C. Merry Foresta, former museum curator and independent consultant for the arts, will curate the exhibition and write for the catalog, which the museum will co-publish the with The Irving Penn Foundation.

“This gift to the museum of rarely exhibited works by Irving Penn creates an opportunity to present a revealing retrospective and a look at the influential legacy of this important American photographer,” said Foresta. “I am particularly pleased that the retrospective will contain images from his earliest series, the ‘American South.’”

Penn earlier donated 61 photographs, spanning his career from 1944 to 1986, to the museum during his lifetime, 60 of them in 1988. Those works, along with 60 that Penn gave to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, were presented in the 1990 exhibition “Irving Penn: Master Images,” which was jointly organized by the two museums.

“Irving Penn was responsible for some of the most iconic photographs in 20th-century American culture,” said Lisa Hostetler, the museum’s McEvoy Family Curator of Photography. “His portraits and fashion photographs defined elegance in the 1950s, yet throughout his career he also transformed mundane objects—storefront signs, food, cigarette butts, street debris—into memorable images of unexpected, often surreal, beauty. Such images had a profound impact on generations of photographers and continue to inspire artists today.”

In 1983, the Smithsonian American Art Museum began to seriously collect photography, first under the guidance of Foresta, who was the museum’s curator of photography from 1983 to 1999, followed by Toby Jurovics and now under Hostetler. Its holdings range from early daguerreotypes to contemporary digital works. Selections from this pioneering collection are currently on display in “A Democracy of Images: Photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum,” guest curated by Foresta. The exhibition, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the museum’s photography program, showcases 113 photographs from the permanent collection. A complementary website is available through tablet stations in the exhibition galleries, online and on mobile devices at

About the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum celebrates the vision and creativity of Americans with artworks in all media spanning more than three centuries. Its National Historic Landmark building is located at Eighth and F streets N.W., above the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metrorail station. Museum hours are 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. Follow the museum on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, iTunes, ArtBabble and YouTube. Museum information (recorded): (202) 633-7970. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Website:

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Note to Editors: Selected high-resolution images for publicity only may be downloaded from Email for the password. A slide show of selected images is online at