Brilliant Exiles

American Women in Paris, 1900–1939


Self-portrait (1923) by Romaine BrooksSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

During the early twentieth century, Paris was the destination of choice for talented, independent American women who were determined to move beyond the limitations that restricted them at home. Many used their newfound liberty as an opportunity for self-reinvention and discovery.

Ballerinas (c. 1933) by Zelda FitzgeraldSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In Paris, American women explored a variety of options for making their mark on contemporary culture. They carried out transformative work in wide-ranging fields including art, literature, dance, publishing, music, and fashion.

Rose O'Neill (1915) by Lillian Fisk ThompsonSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Rose O'Neill

“I have a thrilling hope that women are going to do something glorious in the arts.  It is my passionate conviction. I am always indignant when women are denied creative power in art.”

The illustrator and women’s rights activist Rose O’Neill became a self-made millionaire thanks to the commercial success of her “Kewpie” cartoon character. In Paris, she found support for more experimental artwork inspired by dreams, imagination, and the  unconscious.

Self-portrait (1940) by Loïs Mailou JonesSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Loïs Mailou Jones

“I was forced to go abroad to achieve the recognition [my] own society was not willing to give. There I was treated with great respect and afforded the privilege of having my paintings judged and exhibited.”

This self-portrait reflects the confidence Loïs Mailou Jones gained in Paris during her first visit in 1937-38. She portrays herself at work in her studio, paintbrushes in hand. The African figurines in the background were key to the artistic identity she developed in France.

Isadora Duncan by Abraham WalkowitzSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Isadora Duncan

“She is coming, the dancer of the future: the free spirit, who will inhabit the body of new women; more glorious than any woman that has yet been; more beautiful than all women in past centuries: The highest intelligence in the freest body.”  

Isadora Duncan arrived in Paris in 1900 and began to fulfill her vision for a revolutionary approach to dance. Her freedom and self-expression laid the groundwork for the international modern dance movement and encouraged bold new experiments in the visual arts as well.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (1939) by Sir Francis Cyril RoseSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

“So Paris was the place that suited those of us that were to create twentieth-century art and literature, naturally enough.”  –Gertrude Stein

After moving to Paris in 1903, Gertrude Stein assembled a pathbreaking modern art collection and developed an experimental form of writing. She further defied convention by committing to a lifelong partnership with Alice B. Toklas, shown with her in this double portrait.

Sylvia Beach (1923) by Paul-Emile BécatSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Sylvia Beach

“What a dark age we are living in and what a privilege to behold the spectacle of ignorant men solemnly deciding whether the work of some great writer is suitable for the public to read or not!” 

Sylvia Beach was one of several American women who published radically experimental literature in Paris. Her bookshop and lending library, Shakespeare and Company, became a crucial hub for progressive literature, banned books, and international cultural exchange.    

Jessie Redmon Fauset (1945) by Laura Wheeler WaringSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Jessie Redmon Fauset

“Sometimes I have felt that my growth as a writer has been hampered in my own country. And so—but only temporarily—I have fled from it.” 

Jessie Redmon Fauset played a crucial role in the Harlem Renaissance as a novelist and literary editor.  Seeking relief from racial prejudice, she went to France in 1914 and 1924. In her novels, she often drew on her experiences as a Black woman in France.

Josephine Baker (1926) by Stanislaus Julian WalerySmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Josephine Baker

“What was the good of having the statue without the liberty, the freedom to go where one chose if one was held back by one’s color? No, I preferred the Eiffel Tower, which made no promises.”

At age nineteen, Josephine Baker sailed to France with dreams of fame that were beyond her reach in the United States. Her performance in an all-Black revue took Paris by storm. Her eccentric whimsy, anatomy-defying movements, and supercharged energy left audiences dazzled.

Ada “Bricktop” Smith (1934) by Carl Van VechtenSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Ada “Bricktop” Smith

“I packed and made preparations without any idea of what was in store for me. It was a spur-of-the moment thing, a new adventure just for the sake of adventure.” 

A job offer at a Montmartre nightspot lured Ada “Bricktop” Smith across the Atlantic in 1924. Over the next fifteen years, she owned and operated some of the most renowned nightclubs in interwar Paris. African Americans in Paris found a second home at Bricktop’s.

Lillian Evanti (1940) by Loïs Mailou JonesSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Lillian Evanti

“[I] had to get to Paris…. That need to go to Europe burned in me like the flame in a steel furnace, bright and fiery and harsh and terrible. It consumed me. And I never really let anything stand in my way.”

Eager to advance her career as an opera singer, Lillian Evanti journeyed to Paris in 1924. There, she became the first African American to perform with the grand opera companies of Europe. In this colorful portrait, Evanti wears her costume from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

Natalie Barney by Alice Pike BarneySmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Natalie Barney

“Paris has always seemed to me the only city in which one can express oneself as one pleases…. In France, thought, food, and love have remained a matter of personal taste and one’s own business.” 

For sixty years, the writer Natalie Barney oversaw a Paris institution: a weekly salon that promoted literature and the arts. She introduced women of different nationalities to each other’s work, and she provided a congenial gathering place for lesbians such as herself.

Anais Nin (c. 1932) by Natashia TroubetskoiaSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

These American women took a leap into the future by crossing the Atlantic to pursue their personal and professional aspirations. They experienced liberties, opportunities, and tolerances that were yet to be achieved in the United States in the early twentieth century. 

Katherine Dreier (1915–16) by Anne GoldthwaiteSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

How much has changed for women in the United States since then? Have the freedoms and possibilities these “brilliant exiles” sought in Paris become realities today?

Credits: Story

Brilliant Exiles: American Women in Paris, 1900–1939 is on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. from April 26, 2024, to February 23, 2025. 

Image Credits
Lillian Evanti by Loïs Mailou Jones, 1940. © The Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust
Ada "Bricktop" Smith by Carl Van Vechten, 1934. © Van Vechten Trust

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