Smithsonian Collections

Bessie Smith

Image for Bessie Smith
Data Source
National Portrait Gallery
Exhibition Label
Legendary blues singer Bessie Smith first made a name for herself performing in tent shows and vaudeville theaters, where audiences warmed to her powerful, earthy contralto. Smith's big break came in 1923, when she signed with Columbia and released her debut recording, "Down Hearted Blues." The phenomenal success of that record and those that followed established Smith as the undisputed "Empress of the Blues." Able to command as much as $2,000 a week at the height of her fame, Smith played to packed houses and recorded with the top jazz musicians of the day. Although her career suffered a sharp decline with the onset of the Depression and the collapse of the recording industry, Smith continued to perform until an automobile accident claimed her life in 1937. Her musical legacy has influenced countless performers, from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin.
Artist
Carl Van Vechten, 17 Jun 1880 - 21 Dec 1964
Sitter
Bessie Smith, 15 Apr 1894 - 26 Sep 1937
Date
1936
Credit Line
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Medium
Gelatin silver print
Dimensions
Image/Sheet: 35.3 x 27.7 cm (13 7/8 x 10 7/8")
Mat: 71.1 x 55.9 cm (28 x 22")
Type
Photograph
See more items in
National Portrait Gallery Collection
Object number
NPG.2006.11
Culture
Bessie Smith: American\African American
Topic
Costume\Jewelry\Earring
Interior
Bessie Smith: Female
Bessie Smith: Performing Arts\Performer\Musician\Singer\Jazz
Bessie Smith: Performing Arts\Performer\Musician\Singer\Rhythm and Blues
Portrait
Restrictions & Rights
© Carl Van Vechten Trust