As a Sign of Respect, the National Portrait Gallery Will Spotlight Late Music Legend Aretha Franklin’s Iconic Portrait

The Milton Glaser-designed 1968 poster goes on view Friday.

Aretha Franklin with her portrait by Milton Glaser at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Photo courtesy of Angela Pham/BFA.
Aretha Franklin with her portrait by Milton Glaser at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Photo courtesy of Angela Pham/BFA.

Aretha Franklin has died at age 76 from advanced pancreatic cancer, at home in Detroit. The beloved singer, who won 18 Grammy Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In honor of Franklin’s passing, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, has announced a special exhibition of the singer and songwriter’s portrait, to be on display August 17–22.

Drawn from the museum’s collection, the brightly colored, geometric portrait is by graphic designer Milton Glaser, famous for creating the “I ♥ NY” logo. The color photolithographic poster was made for the Eye Magazine, published by the Hearst Corporation, in 1968, when Aretha was just 26. That same year, Franklin sang at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.

“[The portrait] has an electricity, a pulsating rhythm, that you can just imagine that her voice had,” Asma Naeem, the NPG’s associate curator of prints, drawings, and media arts told Smithsonian Magazine. “Glaser’s design—from the patterning, color, composition and shapes, all suggest the amazing verve and energy of Aretha Franklin.”

Glaser has since sold millions of reproductions of the design, but the NPG has one of the originals, pulled from the pages of the short-lived young adult publication. The Smithsonian also has over 100 recordings of Franklin part of the collection of the National Museum of American History.

Milton Glaser, Aretha Franklin (1968), for the Eye Magazine. Photo courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, ©Milton Glaser.

Milton Glaser, Aretha Franklin (1968), for the Eye Magazine.
Photo courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, ©Milton Glaser.

Other artists who have been inspired by the Queen of Soul include Andy Warhol, who designed the cover of Franklin’s 1986 record Aretha, her 34th studio album. According to the 2001 biography Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul, the painting was Warhol’s final work before his death in early 1987. The album cover is part of the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Battling ill health since 2010, Franklin officially retired from performing last year, with a final appearance at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Gala in New York this past November. She was honored by the NPG with the Portrait of a Nation Prize in November 2015, performing at the Museum’s inaugural American Portrait Gala.

Andy Warhol, Aretha Franklin (1986), album cover. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York/Arista Records, ©2017 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Andy Warhol, Aretha Franklin (1986), album cover. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York/Arista Records, ©2017 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Among Franklin’s biggest hits were “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Her memorable performances include filling in for Luciano Pavarotti on the opera aria “Nessun dorma” at the 1998 Grammy Awards and singing at the 2009 inauguration of former President Barack Obama.

In Franklin’s hometown of Detroit, the Motown Museum will pay tribute to her incredible career by playing her music all weekend long.

Milton Glaser’s 1968 portrait of Aretha Franklin will be on view at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, 8th St NW & F St NW, Washington, DC, in the museum’s In Memoriam space on the first floor, August 17–22, 2018.


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