November 18, 2009
Stroll through the main hall of the National Portrait Gallery this winter, and you are likely to see Shephard Fairey’s already iconic “Hope” poster of President Barack Obama, followed by the very simple and powerful depiction of the late senator Ted Kennedy. And then there is the museum’s newest addition to this gallery of America’s who’s-who, a 1971 portrait of opera singer Marilyn Horne. “The painting serves as a biography of Ms. Horne,” says curator of painting and sculpture Brandon Fortune, “and allows us to tell the story of American opera in the twentieth century.”
Marilyn Horne is celebrated as one of the most remarkable voices of the 20th century. Her five-decade career as a vocalist began when she was just four years old when she sang at a rally for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Horne went on to study music at the University of Southern California and launched her professional career in 1954 as the singing voice for Dorothy Dandridge’s in the film Carmen Jones, a modern reworking of the Bizet opera Carmen. Horne later went on to forge a career as an opera singer, tackling roles in Norma, Semiramide and Anna Bolena.
Last Thursday, the 75-year-old mezzo-soprano arrived at the museum to make the donation. The portrait’s portrayal of the young Horne with long, dark, brunette hair, smooth, light skin and sparkling eyes, which Horne described as “in the bloom of my youth,” complemented the opera star’s now graying hair, her full, happy grin and her still sparkling eyes.
The work was created by artist John Foote in 1971 to honor Horne’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma. Foote attended Boston University before moving to Florence to study art. The artist was also present at the dedication, and the pair posed for numerous photos for the public, standing beside the creation that brought them both such obvious pride.
NPG’s director Martin Sullivan thanked the legendary team of artist and muse, expressing the honor it was to now have “this historical American gem” a part of the collection. Horne assured him that it was her honor in a genuine sing-song voice. As the dedication ended and the crowd of people, of which Horne described as “her family by choice,” snapped their last photos, Horne looked at her portrait with satisfaction for the last time, her only request before departing was, “please keep me among Obama and Kennedy.”
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