Audrey Hepburn - Portrait of an Icon at the National Portrait Gallery

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon

When I close my eyes and think of Audrey Hepburn, I picture several things:

  • The pixie hair cut
  • The little black dress
  • The heart-breaking rendition of ‘Moon River’ on the fire escape of a New York City brownstone
  • The characteristic poise, elegance and grace
  • The humanitarian, campaigning tirelessly for UNICEF

All of these things and more are now on display thanks to one of the most exciting exhibits of the summer, Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon, open through 18 October at London’s National Portrait Gallery.

The exhibit brings together over seventy images, from family snapshots, advertisements and fashion shoots to magazine covers, studio publicity shots and iconic collaborations with renowned photographers.

It’s a touching and insightful collection created with support from the Audrey Hepburn Estate as well as Audrey’s sons – Lucca Dotti and Sean Hepburn Ferrer.

The exhibit begins with personal photos of Audrey’s early years in the Netherlands where, even under Nazi occupation, she continued training in ballet – her first love. We also see images of her when she moves to London to pursue a career in dance, landing a part as a chorus girl in Sauce Tartare at Ciro’s in the West End.

But it’s once we move past the early days of fashion shoots and advertisements that Audrey starts to shine and the film industry comes calling.

Despite Hollywood’s mass-produced star-making system, Audrey stands out as something different, unique. We see this clearly in the stunning images captured by photographers Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Angus McBean, Irving Penn, Terry O’Neill, Norman Parkinson and Steven Meisel. These images show her as a stage and screen star, a fashion icon and a philanthropic role model. But she is, first and foremost, a human being.

As a collection and journey through a life, the exhibit shows her transition from a young girl who keeps a central part of herself at arm’s length to a confident woman who is open and fully present in the moment. Her son, Lucca Dotti, acknowledges this, saying, “It’s like a plant growing and transforming, and it’s a [gift] to have them altogether.”

In an interview with the NPG about the collection, he also says:

“When you look at images of your mother, when she was much younger than you yourself are, almost the age of my kids, there is a sense of tenderness toward that girl who discovered life, and in a way, life went so fast for her. This exhibit is about how much these photographers saw in my mother and relayed not only the face, but the character, the joy of life.”

That joy – such joy – Lucca references is apparent in so many of the photographs. Audrey at all times has a luminous quality, a charisma, an irrepressible lightness about her. She also retains a vulnerability throughout the images that make her seem accessible despite her iconic status.

Audrey’s films from the 1950s and 1960s capture a world that was changing its sensibilities, its rules for women, its fashion and its attitudes. It was a tumultuous time and there was the potential to trip or falter, to lose dignity.

But Audrey embodied the best of this cultural shift, prompting Vogue to write, “She has so captured the public imagination and the mood of the time that she has established a new standard of beauty, and every other face now approximates to the ‘Hepburn look’.”

Such is the power of this Hepburn look – simple, understated, flawlessly cut – that she continues to be a role model and fashion inspiration to this day.

You won’t want to miss this exhibit. Be sure to check the National Portrait Gallery’s Hepburn page for details on tickets, film screenings and lectures inspired by the collection. And compliment it all with these inspiring quotes from Audrey to live by.

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