Smithsonian Collections

Bessie Smith

Image for Bessie Smith
Data Source
National Portrait Gallery
Exhibition Label
Bessie Smith was the most influential blues singer in history and the first major feminist voice in American music. With her deep, powerful contralto, Smith foregrounded an individual woman’s experience in her songs: she sang alternately with lusty pride and melancholy of sexual desire, economic hardship, loneliness, and transience. She drank and fought as hard as any man, ran her own vaudeville troupe, and once scared off a bunch of Klansmen by herself. During the Jim Crow era, Smith’s songs mediated the experience of the Great Migration out of the South and evoked intense emotional response from black audiences. A protégé of Ma Rainey, Smith sang of the road as a metaphor for life: "I’m a rambling woman . . . with a rambling mind." Her artistic influence remains vital in artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Erykah Badu, and Lucinda Williams. Janis Joplin put up half the money for Smith’s new gravestone in 1970.
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: 25.2 x 18.6 cm (9 15/16 x 7 5/16")
Mat: 55.9 x 40.6 cm (22 x 16")
Type
Photograph
See more items in
National Portrait Gallery Collection
Object number
NPG.91.108
Culture
Bessie Smith: American\African American
Topic
Costume\Jewelry\Earring
Interior
Costume\Dress Accessory\Fan
Costume\Dress Accessory\Feather
Bessie Smith: Female
Bessie Smith: Performing Arts\Performer\Musician\Singer\Jazz
Bessie Smith: Performing Arts\Performer\Musician\Singer\Rhythm and Blues
Portrait
Restrictions & Rights
© 1936 Carl Van Vechten Trust