Women of a Certain Age

Explore the lives of ten extraordinary women who defied societal limits

Alice Neel Self-Portrait (1980) by Alice NeelSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Painter Alice Neel once proclaimed, “Life begins at seventy,” railing against the social and cultural stereotypes that limit women as they age.

Leah Chase (1988) by Brian LankerSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery’s collection includes many women who discovered new passions, reinvented themselves, or achieved their dreams later in life. The portraits in this digital exhibition remind us of our capacity to change ourselves—and the world—at any age.

Nampeyo (c. 1926) by Arnold GentheSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo’s career spanned several decades, and she produced hand-crafted ceramics well into her seventies. She is considered one of the first recognizable Indigenous artists of her time.

Seed Jar with Sikyatki Motifs (1895/1910) by Nampeyo (About 1860-1942)The Art Institute of Chicago

While she developed a style inspired by motifs from the past, she also experimented with materials and introduced innovative shapes and decorative elements in her Sikyatki-revival style pottery. Her descendants have continued her legacy, many becoming notable potters themselves.

Grandma Moses (1996) by Kristin HelbergSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Anna Mary Robertson Moses started painting at seventy-eight, “to keep busy and out of mischief.” Her idyllic scenes resonated with post-war audiences. A self-taught artist, “Grandma Moses” spent her eighties and nineties painting prolifically and exhibiting in sold-out shows.

Painting:The Old Hoosick Bridge (1947)The Strong National Museum of Play

Despite the acclaim and commercial success, she declared, “I go on my own. . . . I love bright colors, so I use bright colors. I paint because I like to, and I know what I want to paint.” 

Laura Gilpin (1977) by Roger ManleySmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Photographer Laura Gilpin’s most famous works documented the beauty of the southwestern United States and the dynamic Diné (Navajo) and Pueblo peoples.

Gilpin showed the richness and artistry of their cultures in detailed black-and-white photographs, which were exhibited at home and abroad. She was called “the grande dame of American photography” and recognized for her grit and artistic talent.

Alice Neel Self-Portrait (1980) by Alice NeelSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In 1975, Neel began this stark and captivating self-portrait. Later, she recalled of the process: "The reason my cheeks got so pink was that it was so hard for me to paint that I almost killed myself painting it."

A striking challenge to the centuries-old convention of idealized femininity, Neel’s only painted self-portrait is bold and forthright yet dignified.

Hear Alice Neel speak about why she painted in her own words.

Gertrude Hadley Jeannette (2011) by Alex Asher DanielSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Gertrude Jeannette never shied away from blazing new trails. Her most enduring contribution was her work in African American theater, where her career spanned seventy years. 

In response to the lack of authentic roles for Black actors, Jeannette founded HADLEY (Harlem Artists Development League Especially for You) Players in 1979 with the goal of developing theatrical talent and enriching the cultural life of Harlem.  

Katharine Graham (1993) by Diana WalkerSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

When Katharine Graham assumed control of the Washington Post after her husband’s passing, she rose to become one of the most powerful women in the country. She recalled, “What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes, and step off the ledge.” 

Under her direction, the Post published the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and broke the Watergate scandal the following year, two of the biggest news stories of the era. In this video, Graham talks about her decision to publish the Pentagon Papers.

Hisaye Yamamoto (1992) by Marilyn SandersSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In 1988, at sixty-seven, Hisaye Yamamoto published Seventeen Syllables and Other Short Stories, a collection spanning her forty years as a writer. Through spare, poetic prose, it tells stories about Japanese women.

Yamamoto’s writing continues to resonate with readers for her ability to connect specific experiences to broader themes of immigration, assimilation, gender, and the weight of being second-generation American. 

Cutting Squash (Leah Chase) (2010) by Gustave Blache IIISmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Leah Chase’s New Orleans restaurant, Dooky Chase, was more than a destination for Creole cuisine. Over sixty years, she also made it into a community center, a haven for civil rights activists, a gallery for Black artists, and a meeting place for politicians and entertainers.

Leah Chase (1988) by Brian LankerSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Chase recalled, “In my dining room, we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken.” This quotation exemplifies the renowned chef’s ability to think big.

Dr. Marta Moreno Vega (2011) by Timothy Greenfield-SandersSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Dr. Marta Moreno Vega is an Afro-Puerto Rican activist dedicated to expanding visibility and representation for the people of the African Diaspora. Her scholarship explores overlooked histories, religions, and traditions, affirming Afro-Latinx relevance on a global scale.

Cosmogony of Desire (2001) by Anh DuongSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Designer Diane von Fürstenberg became a fashion icon in the 1970s as the inventor of the wrap dress. Having learned from her mother, an Auschwitz survivor, that “fear is not an option,” von Fürstenberg urges women to apply that philosophy to aging.

“In my older face, I see my life,” she has observed. “My face carries all my memories. Why should I erase them?”

Katharine Hepburn (1982) by Everett Raymond KinstlerSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

These women prove that there is no wrong way to embrace life’s phases. For many, the wisdom and self-assurance that come with experience can be a revelation. 

How can you embrace growing older with joy and authenticity?

Credits: Story

Image Credits:
Cosmogony of Desire by Anh Duong, 2001. © Anh Duong    
Self-Portrait by Alice Neel, 1980. © The Estate of Alice Neel    
Gertrude Hadley Jeannette by Alex Asher Daniel, 2011. © Alex Asher Daniel    
Grandma Moses by Kristin Helberg, 1996. © Kristin Helberg    
Hisaye Yamamoto by Marilyn Sanders, 1992. © Marilyn Sanders
Katharine Graham by Diana Walker, 1993. © Diana Walker
Laura Gilpin by Roger B. Manley, 1977. © Roger Manley
Leah Chase by Brian Lanker, 1988. © Brian Lanker Archive
Cutting Squash (Leah Chase) by Gustave Blache III, 2010. © Gustave Blache III 
Dr. Marta Moreno Vega by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 2011. © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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