“I had no talent – my body just did what the music told me to do.”
– J.B., 1940s
“She did not see herself as being just Black or just White. She was not French, but then she was not just American either. She had not thought of herself as beautiful or as ugly. She was none of these, and all of them.”
– Jean-Claude Baker, 1970s
Josephine Baker’s story is one of the 20th century’s true larger-than-life tales. From growing up poor in St. Louis in the midst or race riots to becoming “the Soul of Jazz” in Montmartre, and opening her own club, Chez Joséphine, at the ripe old age of 20. Surfing the waves of outré celebrity from exotic dancing act to showgirl to jazz singer; grandly playing the full diva on the Champs-Elysées with her pet cheetah, Chiquita; smuggling Allied intelligence as part of the French Resistance during World War II. Later, she’d steal food for the homeless, adopt 12 children, style herself “Universal Mother,” and fight for the civil rights of African-Americans, speaking at Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington. It’s a story of sublime paradox: pure American individualism that, because of race, culture, and convention, could only flourish in Europe, where she became a legend for all time.
38 7/8 x 59 in./98.7 x 150 cm
Michel Gyarmathy, the art director of the Folies Bergère, created this extraordinary and unique image based on the photograph by Harcourt. It became not only the classic poster promoting Josephine’s legendary return to the Folies Bergère after the end of the Second World War, but also the cover of the acclaimed biography “Josephine: The Hungry Heart,” by Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase. “Josephine wanted to offer Paris a new Folies-Bergère; there would still be naked girls, but Josephine the war heroine would cover her body with thirty different costumes and play many famous women of history. She would be Eve, go on to the Empress Josephine, and finally she would personify the unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots” (Josephine, p. 285).
8 7/8 x 12 5/8 in./22 x 32 cm
In this wry character portrait, Josephine Baker is pictured with her pet leopard “Chiquita,” with whom she would frequently walk the streets of Paris. But this leopard’s head is Jo Bouillon, her band-leader husband. Almost nothing is known of the illustrator, Jan Mara, but he ran deep in the French performing arts circles from the 1920s – 1960s, producing illustrations of musicians like Django Reinhardt, society figures, and later in the 1950s and 1960s, French film posters and album covers.
45 1/2 x 116 1/2 in./115.4 x 296 cm
This is Josephine Baker at the fullest height of her powers, and larger-than-life –– literally. This amazing two-sheet image stands 10 1/3 feet tall, the creation of Michel Gyarmathy. He’d created a poster for her in Budapest in 1927. Then he arrived in Paris in 1933 and, by 1935, was a regular collaborator with the Folies-Bergère. This beautiful two-sheet poster, blazing with freshness and movement, depicts the smiling star bedecked like an African dancer, she wears bright red feathers around her ankles, her waist and on her breasts.
41 3/8 x 60 1/2 in./105 x 153.7 cm
Drawing clear influence from his friend Paul Colin’s many renderings of the performer, this poster is an Art Deco tour de force. It is also shrouded in a bit of mystery as, at the time of its creation, Josephine Baker was just finishing Paris qui Remue – leaving it unclear as to what this poster would have been promoting.