National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; purchase partially supported through the generosity of the Abraham and Virginia Weiss Charitable Trust, Amy and Marc Meadows, in honor of Wendy Wick Reaves; and Jewell Robinson
Beginning as a blues singer on the black vaudeville circuit while still in her teens, Ethel Waters later made her way to Harlem, where she entertained at the Cotton Club and other nightspots. From the mid-1920s to early 1930s she appeared in all-black revues before moving to mainstream musicals with her performance in Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer (1933). Waters became the first African American actress to play a dramatic lead on Broadway with her role in Mamba’s Daughters (1939). She ultimately appeared in more than a dozen Broadway productions and nine films, including Cabin in the Sky (1943) and The Member of the Wedding (1952).
African American artist Beauford Delaney first gained a reputation in New York City in the 1930s with distinctive pastel portraits like this image of Waters, who was a particular favorite. Delaney and his protégé, James Baldwin, would often listen to, and sing along with, her music.