Contralto Marian Anderson famously delivered a soaring performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 — after the Daughters of the American Revolution blocked her from singing at Constitution Hall because she was black.
A cultural milestone, Anderson’s concert turned her into a reluctant symbol of the push for civil rights. While this year marks the 80th anniversary of the performance, the National Portrait Gallery is using the occasion to explore Anderson’s life beyond that watershed moment.
The museum’s new “One Life: Marian Anderson” exhibition, on view through May 17, features 26 items including photographs, paintings and archival materials. A kiosk plays seven video and audio clips of various highlights, including Anderson’s performance at the 1963 March on Washington and life on her Connecticut farm, where she lived until one year before her death in 1993 at the age of 96 in Portland, Ore.
Anderson, already an international superstar used to selling out opera houses around the world, performed a 25-minute concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, singing “America (My Country ’Tis of Thee),” an aria called “O Mio Fernando” from the opera “La Favorita,” “Ave Maria,” and three spirituals: “The Gospel Train,” “Trampin’ ” and “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.”
Three years later, the DAR relented and invited Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall for a 1943 charity concert series supporting the war effort. Anderson accepted the invitation, and would go on to perform at Constitution Hall at least four more times. One of the audio clips in the exhibit comes from Anderson’s stop there on her 1964-65 farewell tour.
“Eventually, they did get rid of that clause and they did allow performers to be African American and to perform,” says Leslie Ureña, the museum’s associate curator of photographs, adding that DAR bent the rule when they invited Anderson in 1942 and changed the policy in 1952. “She just didn’t really want to talk about it that much.”
Here are three of the most significant images amplifying aspects of Anderson’s life.
National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW; through May 17, free.
'Marian Anderson’ by William Henry Johnson (c. 1945)
Like Anderson, Johnson, a noted African American painter, enjoyed an extensive career abroad, and his painting depicts Anderson’s worldwide appeal while recognizing some of her critical milestones at home. The mosaic features several foreign flags, the Eiffel Tower, the White House and Anderson receiving the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “It gives you a combination of different places where she performed and the international nature of her career and also the important moments like the medal, the Lincoln Memorial performance and other aspects of it,” Ureña says.
‘Marian Anderson’ by Beauford Delaney (1965)
Anderson acted as a muse for Delaney, an important painter who launched his career during the Harlem Renaissance. For Delaney, Anderson symbolized the civil rights movement while embodying a relentless pursuit of musical perfection, Ureña says. Delaney went with James Baldwin to see Anderson perform, met her once, wrote letters to her and painted this portrait of her from memory. “Whenever he saw her, he was very touched by her, so the idea of him trying to capture her, it’s real interesting because she’s not singing,” Ureña says, noting that Delaney painted the portrait the year Anderson retired.
‘Marian Anderson’ by Brian Lanker (1989)
The pioneering songbird was in her early 90s when Lanker photographed and interviewed her for his book “I Dream a World,” which featured 75 groundbreaking black women. Lanker took Anderson’s picture at Carnegie Hall, where she served on its board and enjoyed a lengthy career that began with her 1928 recital debut. In the interview, Anderson confessed that she didn’t see herself as a trailblazer, Ureña says. “She talks about how she’s never been a mover and a shaker, but she is, and so this is the tension … that is really part and parcel of the way that she lived her life.”
Correction: In an earlier version of the story, the curator gave the wrong year for when DAR changed its policy on allowing black artists to perform at Constitution Hall. It has been corrected.