Today, April 9, 2013, marks the 20th anniversary of the death at the age of 96 of the internationally renowned singer and humanitarian, Marian Anderson. Since my childhood, I had known of Anderson’s great musicality and barrier-shattering reputation as the first African American artist to perform at the White House (in 1936) and sing a major role on the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House (in 1955). For this awareness, I credit my mother, herself a talented singer, and father, a progressive humanitarian in his own right. Then came my graduate-school move to Philadelphia, where I found myself in 1993 at a memorial service for Anderson at the Union Baptist Church, the place she first sang in public and whose supportive congregation provided financial assistance for her early music lessons.
Fast forward to December 2012, when I had the great privilege and pleasure of acquiring for VMFA Beauford Delaney’s majestic homage to Anderson. The portrait was painted in 1965, the year of her last public performance, which occurred on Easter Sunday, April 18th, at Carnegie Hall—26 Easters after her momentous concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That cultural milestone transformed the Lady from Philadelphia into the voice and symbol of America’s nascent civil-rights movement; some have gone even further in describing the significance of the event, calling Anderson the voice of the American Soul. So, when you pass through the American Midcentury gallery today, pause to admire Delaney’s hieratic depiction of this remarkable woman and artist—in all her encompassing golden warmth and dignity.
Sylvia Yount, Chief Curator