National Portrait Gallery Rounds Up the Coolest Americans

What exactly does it mean to be cool? From "Leaves of Grass" to MTV, it's a word tied to virtually every era of American life: cool. And since the 1800s, how we define cool has been based on the people in the cultural spotlight. Thanks to the National Portrait Gallery, you can see how "American Cool" has evolved from Walt Whitman to Madonna and beyond. The exhibit, complete with black-and-white photos and a cool soundtrack, is available until Sept. 7.

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Private Collection
What exactly does it mean to be cool? From "Leaves of Grass" to MTV, it's a word tied to virtually every era of American life: cool. And since the 1800s, how we define cool has been based on the people in the cultural spotlight. Thanks to the National Portrait Gallery, you can see how "American Cool" has evolved from Walt Whitman to Madonna and beyond. The exhibit, complete with black-and-white photos and a cool soundtrack, showcases its opinions on the 100 Coolest Americans. The exhibit runs until Sept. 7.
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Collection of the artist
Before there was Lady Gaga or Britney Spears, there was Madonna. As a songwriter, dancer, actress, auteur, producer and fashionista, Madonna transformed the post-feminist landscape of American culture, the gallery says.
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National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Seen in "Casablanca," Bogart makes the list for his classy blend of cool. A natural rebel, he played plenty of tough-guy roles throughout his career in Hollywood.
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Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey
He did it his way, that's for sure. From his long list of musical classics to appearances in a slew of films, Sinatra's coolness may never fade.
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Courtesy Alfred Eisenstaedt / LIFE
In 1944, the critic James Agee hailed Lauren Bacall as "the toughest girl Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while." As one half of Hollywood's earliest iconic couples, Bacall married Humphrey Bogart in 1945.
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Aram Avakian Collection
As one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, Davis embodied the coolness of jazz -- and those sunglasses, of course, didn't hurt.
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Fahey / Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
Motorcycles? Car racing? Action thrillers? Steve McQueen screamed cool by performing his own high-speed stunts in several films. Plus, if your nickname is the "King of Cool," you probably belong on this list.
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National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Roy Schatt
From his "Rebel Without a Cause" fame, James Dean was the one of the first American teenagers realistically captured by Hollywood -- and he was never too far from a cloud of cigarette smoke.
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Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
She"s the cofounder and lead singer of new-wave punk band Blondie. And she also pioneered the New York City punk scene. Yep, she's cool.
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National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Skateboarding has always been cool, but Tony Hawk made the sport a real thing. He's described as one part Michael Jordan and one part Evel Knievel. You can catch these and the other 90 members of "American Cool" at the Portrait Gallery through Sept. 7.
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