Brilliant Exiles: American Women in Paris, 1900–1939

Yale Univ. Jul. 2024. 288p. ISBN 9780300273588. $60. FINE ARTS
This visually stunning and comprehensive accompaniment to a traveling exhibition originating at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery is as brilliant as its many subjects. NPG Curator of Portraits and Drawings Asleson introduces readers to 57 remarkable American women who were drawn to Paris in the early 20th century. Asleson, along with scholars in the fields of performance and fine arts, queer studies, and history, describes how Paris transformed these women, and how they in turn transformed Paris. Most of these unconventional women sought to escape the sexist, racist, gender bias, and artistic constraints of the United States; Paris represented freedom of expression and tolerance to them, especially to Black and lesbian émigrés. Some of the women, like performer and WWII hero Josephine Baker and Shakespeare & Co. bookstore founder Sylvia Beach, remained in Paris for the rest of their lives and influenced their adopted city. Others returned to the States, renewed and reinvigorated and ready to invent new art forms. Paintings and photographs of each subject appear alongside the book’s brief, well-written bios. Asleson scrutinizes the portraits and offers telling details about each subject in bio-essays that do not dwell on the scandalous or tawdry.
VERDICT “Brilliant” also describes this beautiful, browsable, yet scrupulously researched volume. With copious chapter endnotes, an index, and luscious color spreads, this gathering of amazing, trail-blazing women is riveting.
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