News Releases

National Portrait Gallery Presents “American Cool”

100 People Who Define Cool in Arresting Photographs

January 8, 2014

What does it mean when we say someone is cool? Cool carries a social charge of rebellious self-expression, charisma, edge and mystery. “American Cool” will feature 100 photographs of icons who have contributed an original artistic vision to American culture and are symbolic figures of their time. The exhibition will be open at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Feb. 7 through Sept. 7.

Cool is an original American concept and remains a global obsession. In the early 1940s, legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young brought this central African American sensibility into the modern vernacular. Cool became a password in bohemian life connoting a balanced state of mind, a dynamic mode of performance and a certain stylish stoicism. A cool person always seems to have the situation under control with a signature style.

“‘American Cool’ is about America’s greatest cultural export—cool—and who embodies it,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery. “What you might find surprising about this show is how far back this idea reaches. I especially like this how this exhibition shows photographs of icons by world-renowned photographers. And that the show offers an opportunity for a national conversation about who defines ‘cool.’”

To choose the 100 figures for the show, the exhibition curators created a historical rubric of four factors: An original artistic vision carried off with a signature style; the embodiment of cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation; iconic power, or instant visual recognition; and a recognized cultural legacy. Each cool figure possesses at least three of these elements; the 100 people represent the successful rebels of American culture.

Cool has been embodied in jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and Billie Holiday; in actors such as Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway and Robert Mitchum; and in singers such as Elvis Presley, Patti Smith and Jay-Z. They emerged from a variety of fields: art, music, film, sports comedy, literature and even political activism. “American Cool” is the zeitgeist taking embodied form.

These people are captured by some of the most important fine-art photographers of the 20th century, including Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Annie Leibovitz and Herman Leonard.

The exhibition includes five film and music clips for visitors to play. In addition, there will be music playing in the galleries created by 10 of the jazz, blues and rock-and-roll artists in the show. Public programs include curator-led tours scheduled Feb. 8 at 2:30 p.m. and March 8 at 2 p.m.

“American Cool” is accompanied by a fully illustrated 192-page catalog of the same title, published by Delmonico Books, with essays by the exhibition curators, Joel Dinerstein and Frank H. Goodyear III, and available for $49.95.

Dinerstein is the James H. Clark Endowed Chair in American Civilization and director of the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South at Tulane University. Goodyear is co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art and former curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery.

“American Cool” is made possible by the support of History Channel. Additional support is provided by Destination DC.

National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the history of America through the individuals who have shaped its culture. Through the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the American story.

The National Portrait Gallery is part of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture at Eighth and F streets N.W., Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Website:

The Roots of Cool

Fred Astaire

Bix Beiderbecke

Louise Brooks

James Cagney

Frederick Douglass

Greta Garbo

Ernest Hemingway

Zora Neale Hurston

Jack Johnson

Duke Kahanamoku

Buster Keaton

H.L. Mencken

Georgia O’Keeffe

Dorothy Parker

Bessie Smith

Willie “The Lion” Smith

Mae West

Walt Whitman

Bert Williams


The Birth of Cool

Lauren Bacall

James Baldwin

Humphrey Bogart

Marlon Brando

Lenny Bruce

William S. Burroughs

Raymond Chandler

Gary Cooper

Miles Davis

James Dean

Duke Ellington

Dizzy Gillespie

Woody Guthrie

Audrey Hepburn

Billie Holiday

Jack Kerouac

Gene Krupa

Robert Mitchum

Thelonius Monk

Anita O’Day

Charlie Parker

Jackson Pollock

Elvis Presley

Frank Sinatra

Barbara Stanwyck

Muddy Waters

John Wayne

Hank Williams

Lester Young

Cool and the Counterculture

Muhammad Ali

James Brown

Jim Brown

Johnny Cash

Angela Davis

Joan Didion

Faye Dunaway

Bob Dylan

Clint Eastwood

Walt Frazier

Marvin Gaye

Deborah Harry

Jimi Hendrix

Bruce Lee

Steve McQueen

Bill Murray

Paul Newman

Jack Nicholson

Bonnie Raitt 

Lou Reed

Carlos Santana

Patti Smith

Susan Sontag

Hunter S. Thompson

John Travolta

Andy Warhol

Malcolm X

Frank Zappa


The Legacy of Cool

Afrika Bambaataa

Jean-Michel Basquiat

David Byrne

Kurt Cobain

Johnny Depp

Missy Elliott

Tony Hawk

Chrissie Hynde


Steve Jobs

Michael Jordan


Willie Nelson


Susan Sarandon


Tupac Shakur

Sam Shepard

Bruce Springsteen

Jon Stewart

Quentin Tarantino

Benicio del Toro

Tom Waits

Neil Young

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Media only
Bethany Bentley
(202) 633-8293

Evanne Allen
(202) 633-2585


Deborah Harry, 1978 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.