Lorraine Hansberry, 1959


THROUGHOUT THE NATION, organizations and cultural institutions have been commemorating the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment in a variety of ways. At the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., a new exhibition marks the occasion by highlighting 24 women writers whose work has shaped the literary landscape and influenced American society over the past 100 years.

“Her Story: A Century of Women Writers” is part of the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative launched in November 2018. The exhibition features portraits of Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Willa Cather, Sandra Cisneros, Lorraine Hansberry, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Ayn Rand, Susan Sontag, and Alice Walker, among others. Jhumpa Lahiri is the youngest of the group.

Hailing from an array of backgrounds, the selection of creative, thought-provoking, and critically recognized writers includes storytellers, poets, and essayists. Award winners and pioneers, too.

“Annie Allen,” a collection of poetry by Brooks, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1950, making her the first Black person win a Pulitzer in any category. In 1959, Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” was the first play by a Black writer produced on Broadway. More than three decades later, Morrison was the first Black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

The diverse selection of creative, thought-provoking, and critically recognized writers includes storytellers, poets, and essayists.

Drawn entirely from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, the works on view include paintings, drawings, and sculpture, with most of the portraits in the medium of photography.

David Attie’s image of Hansberry is from an April 1959 photoshoot for Vogue magazine. A month after “Raisin in the Sun” debuted on Broadway, he photographed Hansberry in her book-filled Greenwich Village apartment. The photographic portrait of Morrison by Deborah Feingold was featured on the cover of the Jan. 1, 1998, issue of Time magazine. The appearance coincided with the publication of her novel “Paradise,” her first book after winning the Nobel Prize. The magazine’s cover line called Morrison “the Great American Storyteller.”

When the women’s initiative was announced, its stated goal was to amplify the accomplishments of women by launching “the nation’s most comprehensive undertaking to document, research, collect, display and share the rich, complete and compelling story of women in America. It will greatly increase the Smithsonian’s research and programming related to women in the U.S., past and present.”

Toward that end, the “Her Story” exhibition presents images of a demographically diverse slate of women writers spanning more than four generations—important literary figures whose stories, experiences, and works must be heard, studied, read, and shared.

However, representation of women among the artists in the show is lacking, as 20 of the 24 portraits were made by men. Only four of the works in the exhibition are by women artists. In addition to Feingold’s portrait of Morrison, Rollie McKenna photographed Dorothy Parker, Sara S. Miller sculpted Brooks, and Brigitte Lacombe photographed Angelou.

Curators at some museums have a more inclusive and representative view of artists, art history, and contemporary culture than their predecessors, which is reflected in their acquisitions, programming, and in exhibitions such as “Her Story,” in terms of the selected subjects. Unfortunately, broader thinking today can’t erase bias toward white male artists entrenched in museum collections built up over many, many decades.

Photographer Anthony Barboza is the sole Black artist in the show. Barboza’s portrait of Maxine Hong Kingston is featured in the exhibition. Her award-winning books include “The Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts” (1976) and “China Men” (1980).

Based in New York, Barboza is a member of the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of Black photographers. Writing about Barboza earlier this year in The New Yorker, Hilton Als reflected on a series of portraits he made of “Black stars” from the worlds of theater, film, and publishing in 1979. Als wrote: “Barboza captures them all with the keen eye of a man who appreciates what makes the artist—that interior self.” CT


TOP IMAGE: DAVID ATTIE (1920-1982), “Lorraine Hansberry,” 1959 (gelatin silver print, image: 34.6 x 27.3 cm / 13 5/8 x 10 3/4 inches). | © David Attie, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


“Her Story: A Century of Women Writers” is on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., from Sept. 18, 2020-Jan. 18, 2021

FIND MORE Another portrait of Toni Morrison, a painting by Robert McCurdy is featured in the exhibition “Visionary: The Cumming Family Collection,” which is also currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery, Sept. 18, 2020-Jan. 24, 2021


DEBORAH FEINGOLD (born 1951), Toni Morrison, 1998, Time cover, January 19, 1998 (chromogenic print, sheet: 35.5 × 27.9 cm / 14 × 11 inches) . | © Deborah Feingold, Gift of Time magazine, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


BRIGITTE LACOMBE (b. 1950), Maya Angelou, Algonquin Hotel, New York City, 1987, printed 2012 (inkjet print). | © Brigitte Lacombe, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


SARA S. MILLER (1924–2016), Gwendolyn Brooks, 1994 (bronze). | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, © Sara S. Miller


ANTHONY BARBOZA (b. 1944), Maxine Hong Kingston, 1989 (chromogenic print, image: 26.7 x 27.3 cm / 10 1/2 x 10 3/4 inches). | © Anthony Barboza, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


BERNARD GOTFRYD (1924-2016), Alice Walker, 1976 (Gelatin silver print, image: 35.5 × 27.2 cm (14 × 10 11/16″). | © The Bernard Gotfryd Revocable Living Trust, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


The Black women writers featured in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Her Story” exhibition, including Maya Angelou and Alice Walker, have published countess volumes and many others have been written about them, including “Alice Walker: A Life” by Evelyn C. White. Released this summer, “Toni Morrison: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations” offers first-hand insight directly from Toni Morrison about her life and many books. The selection also includes “Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry,” an award-winning biography; “Young, Gifted and Black,” an “informal” autobiography with an introduction by James Baldwin; and “A Raisin in the Sun and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” a volume that includes both of Hansberry’s “electrifying masterpieces of the American theater.” Elizabeth Alexander edited “The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks.” For children, consider “Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks”; “Bronzeville Boys and Girls,” written by Gwendolyn Brooks and illustrated by Faith Ringgold; “Rise!: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou”; and Angelou’s “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” featuring art by Jean-Michel Basquiat.


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