Tour of Exhibition Portrait Index Catalog and Traveling Exhibition
Return
Paul Robeson 1898–1976
 
Hugo Gellert's portrait of his friend Paul Robeson originally illustrated a 1928 New Yorker profile of the talented singer and actor. Having abandoned a career in law after a white secretary refused to take his dictation, Robeson was at the height of his popularity. Playwright Eugene O'Neill had cast Robeson in leading roles; in London, record crowds heard his stirring rendition of "Ol' Man River" in the musical Show Boat.

Gellert based his cubist-influenced drawing on the photograph from a 1924 concert program. Using the side of the lithographic crayon, Gellert drew broad, dark arcs of shading across the forehead, repeating a crescent-shaped stroke that echoes the adjacent shape of the ear. He translated Robeson's short-cropped, curly hair into rows of a sharp zig-zag pattern. Angular faceting appears throughout the face. Gellert endows Robeson's portrait with a monumental quality that conveys the dignity of his personality and the richness of his voice. Using his artistic and intellectual gifts, Robeson—like Gellert—would continue to fight for social justice throughout his life.

Hugo Gellert (1892–1985)
Lithographic crayon and graphite on paper, 1928
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Return
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery Home | Teacher's Guide | Credits | Comments | Copyright