Berenice Abbott’s 1928 portrait of Sylvia Beach is electric.

Clad in a liquid-black rain slicker and creamy white scarf, the founder of an iconic Paris bookstore has a sharp, unflinching gaze. Known for publishing James Joyce’s controversial 1922 novel Ulysses, Beach was headstrong and considered “as wise as Machiavelli.”

Beach is one of the more than 60 American women in “Brilliant Exiles,” a new exhibition from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery that showcases the artists, writers and dancers who journeyed to Paris in the early 20th century, spellbound by the French capital.

Sylvia Beach
Sylvia Woodbridge Beach, Berenice Abbott, gelatin silver print, 1928 National Portrait Gallery. © Berenice Abbott/Getty Images

“If you were different in America, you went to Greenwich Village,” in New York, says Robyn Asleson, who curated the show. “If that wasn’t enough for you, you went to Paris.”

At the turn of the 20th century, the city was the pinnacle of Modernism. These women were going places, and, Asleson notes, “Paris was the place to go.”

The American women featured in “Brilliant Exiles” made for themselves new worlds and identities in Paris. They danced with abandon and published the unpublishable. They took risks and triumphed. They were as unwavering as Beach was in her portrait and in life.

In 1941, a Nazi officer visited Beach’s bookstore to buy a copy of Finnegans Wake. When Beach refused, the officer threatened her and vowed to return. At that, she packed up her books and hid them away in an upstairs apartment.

Beach and her contemporaries took leaps in Paris. An ocean away from the strictures of home, they sparkled in the City of Light.

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein sat at the center of the Paris scene. Her salon was magnetic, attracting literary and artistic greats the world over, among them Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. At her weekly soirées, sculptor Jo Davidson wrote in 1951, Stein would watch the crowd “wearing a smile of patience, looking as if she knew something that nobody else did.”

She knew how to cut to the core of a person’s being. Stein’s rhythmic, studied prose could capture a personality in a single line. Picasso, as she wrote in 1911, was “one whom some were certainly following,” by turns a “charming” and “repellant thing.”

Picasso’s portrait of Stein is pensive. In it, the writer sits, slump-shouldered, the russet-inflected ground and loose folds of her robe broken by a white scarf. Her face is severe, even stoic. Picasso reworked it time and again, lamenting “I can’t see you any longer when I look.” He traveled to Spain, and, on his return, completed the picture, imbuing Stein with the rigidity of an Iberian carving. “Everybody says that she does not look like it,” Picasso said, “but … she will.”

The stone-faced picture hints at Stein’s rich inner life. In her 1940 memoir, Paris France, she expounded that the artist abroad exists in two countries: “the one where they belong and the one in which they live really.”

In perennial limbo, the expatriate is neither in her country nor a native of her adopted one. As Asleson observes, “You’re both and neither.”

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker, Stanislaus Julian Walery, gelatin silver print, 1926 National Portrait Gallery

Josephine Baker shimmers in a 1926 portrait by Stanislaus Julian Walery. In it, Baker dances the Charleston in a bespeckled dress, her bright smile radiating on the stage. “Each time I leaped I seemed to touch the sky,” Baker remembered about her first major performance in Paris, “and when I regained earth it seemed to be mine alone.”

Known for her playful routines, Baker could twist and turn, contorting her body, Asleson says. Audiences were enchanted.

But the wildly popular dancer was not beloved the world over. Baker was snubbed on a 1935 visit to New York, the hotels turning her away and saying, “We get many clients from the Southern states, and we could not take the risk.” She recalled years later, “I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. … But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee.”

Her mystique had limits in America. As African American singer and dancer Florence Mills wrote in a British newspaper in 1926, being Black in America was like “a small boy flattening his nose against a pastry cook’s window and longing for all the good things on the other side of the pane.”

Decades later, Baker is widely celebrated. In 2021, she was inducted into France’s Pantheon, the first Black woman so honored.

Peggy Guggenheim

Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim, Man Ray, gelatin silver print, 1924 National Portrait Gallery. © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris

Art collector Peggy Guggenheim delighted in the city’s splendors, from the view of the Seine to the play of light on her ceiling. For Guggenheim, Paris was a city of joy.

But it was a short-lived joy. Guggenheim convinced the sculptor Constantin Brancusi to come down on the price of his Bird in Space, a piece she long admired, even as the Germans began an air raid on the city’s outer boulevards, in 1940.

Artist Lee Krasner said, “What one should say about Peggy is, simply, that she did it.”

Guggenheim was also self-conscious, especially about her looks. She got a nose job, in 1920. “It was ugly,” she wrote in her memoir, “but after the operation it was undoubtedly worse.”

Her portraits in the exhibition, though, are of a rare beauty. In one, a 1926 oil by Alfred Courmes, Guggenheim sits before a blue-gray coastline dotted with spindly branches in the manner of a Renaissance picture. She is sure of herself, her pearly gaze piercing.

In Man Ray’s portrait, shot two years earlier, she is ravishing in a Paul Poiret gown, its bodice embellished with arabesques, its lamé skirt catching the light. Guggenheim was “the last of Henry James’s trans-Atlantic heroines,” the writer Gore Vidal said, “Daisy Miller with rather more balls.”

Isadora Duncan

The dancer Isadora Duncan used her artistic talents to search for a kind of truth, an authenticity freed from all constraint. From age 5, she was already standing her ground. In her memoir, My Life, she remembers a school Christmas party in which she announced that Santa wasn’t real. “Candies are only for little girls who believe in Santa Claus,” her teacher said. But Duncan was firm: “Then I don’t want your candy.”

For Duncan, dance was spiritual, a liberation of mind and body. As she put it: “Each word we speak, each gesture we make, continues in the ether on an immortal voyage.”

In Paris, she met American painter Abraham Walkowitz, who said that he was so entranced by her that he painted more pictures of her “than I have hair on my head.”

“Her body was music,” he told an interviewer. In one of his watercolors, Walkowitz captures Duncan in mid-step, her arms thrown back, her translucent, blush-pink dress billowing. Set against a wash of ochre-tinged brown, she is spry and light-footed.

Alice Pike Barney

Laura Attentive
Laura Attentive, Alice Pike Barney, pastel on paperboard, 1902 Smithsonian American Art Museum

In the audience at one of Duncan’s shows on the Boulevard Malesherbes in Paris was the artist Alice Pike Barney. Barney’s studio on the city’s Right Bank was littered with drawings and paintings. She worked from the early morning to the late afternoon, when she threw on a silk robe and welcomed guests to her first-floor drawing room. Barney’s salon glittered with the city’s most cosmopolitan, among them the artists William Merritt Chase and Carolus-Duran. Her portraits are no less enchanting, such as a 1902 pastel of a woman with dreamy blue eyes and chestnut tresses piled high atop her head.

The subject is Barney’s daughter Laura, a being at once quiet and transfixing. To look at someone’s face, directly, is to know them, Asleson observes. In a glance, “you connect to the human being.”

“Brilliant Exiles: American Women in Paris, 1900-1939” is on view through February 23, 2025, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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