National Portrait Gallery debuts Oprah Winfrey portrait

Oprah Winfrey’s portrait is now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Chicago-based artist Shawn Michael Warren painted Winfrey in a purple taffeta dress amidst a lush garden at her California home. The full-length portrait with the frame, approximately 6-feet-10 inches by 5-feet-8 inches, is commissioned for the museum’s permanent collection. It debuted on the museum’s first floor December 13, 2023.

As a global media leader, philanthropist, producer, actor, author and entrepreneur, Winfrey has made significant contributions to American popular culture, which earned her a place in the National Portrait Gallery.

The painting was revealed in a ceremony the morning of December 13 in the museum’s Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard. Speakers included Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch, National Portrait Gallery Director Kim Sajet, Winfrey and Warren. More luminaries from television, publishing, business, arts, culture and Hollywood were in attendance at the portrait reveal.

“Through her rise to fame as host and producer of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah demonstrated an unparalleled ability to connect with people and inspire them to become the best versions of themselves,” Sajet said. “Her vision and spirit deserve recognition in the nation’s Portrait Gallery, and we are delighted to celebrate her with this commissioned portrait by Shawn Michael Warren, who has reflected her warmth and compassion in this painting.”

The commission for this new painting in oil on canvas was led by Rhea L. Combs, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs.

“Artist Shawn Michael Warren’s remarkable attention to detail and keen knowledge of color theory are fully represented in this vivid, large-scale portrait of Oprah Winfrey,” Combs said. “Warren’s approach to portraiture includes in-depth study and research, as well as shooting numerous photographs and making various sketches during his sittings. It is apparent that the level of care and keen observation that are a part of his artistic practice are on beautiful display here. As someone who grew up in Chicago watching and admiring Oprah on television, in this painting Warren has been able to deftly capture the wonderful spirit and engaging energy of Oprah Winfrey.”

About Oprah Winfrey

Born in rural Kosciusko, Mississippi, in 1954, Winfrey rose to fame as host and producer of the award-winning network TV talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show. The show ran for more than 25 years (1986–2011) and reached millions of viewers. In 1986, Winfrey established Harpo Productions, launched O, The Oprah Magazine in 2000 and went on to become chairman and CEO of the cable network OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network in 2011. In 2021, O, The Oprah Magazine expanded digitally through OprahDaily.com and Oprah Insider, a subscription site.

When Oprah’s Book Club launched in 1996, her recommended books became instant bestsellers, launching careers for many authors and serving as a catalyst for the creation of book clubs around the world. In 2017, she also launched a podcast, Super Soul, which has been downloaded more than 600 million times by listeners around the world.

In 2013, Winfrey was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. She became the first African American woman to be honored with the 2018 Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award.  

Winfrey is a dedicated philanthropist, having donated $500 million to various causes, including over $200 million toward the education of girls at her school, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, in South Africa built from a promise she pledged to Nelson Mandela.

Her support of education includes the Oprah Winfrey’s Scholars Program at Morehouse College for men in Atlanta, and contributions as a founding donor for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). In 2020, Winfrey donated over $20 million in vital COVID-19 relief support to her hometowns around the country, including Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles.

In 2018, NMAAHC opened the yearlong exhibition “Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture” (co-curated by Combs and Kathleen Kendrick), which used her TV show as a lens to explore contemporary American culture, especially issues of power, gender and the media.

About the Artist

Warren grew up watching Winfrey’s daytime talk show and first captured the television host’s likeness in a large-scale mural. Co-created with artists Jane Barthes, Anna Murphy and Kalan Strauss in 2020, Warren’s mural adorns Chicago’s West Loop, where Winfrey’s Harpo Studios filmed The Oprah Winfrey Show

After conducting a photoshoot at Ms. Winfrey’s home alongside photographer Darius Carter, Warren began work on the portrait at Loyola’s University Chicago’s Museum of Art, as part of a partnership facilitated by Ahmed Flex Omar, vice president of Loyola’s Black Alumni Board. The portrait was later completed at Warren’s Studio in Chicago.

The painting depicts a self-assured and joyful Winfrey holding a sprig from an olive tree. Her purple dress pays tribute to Winfrey’s ongoing interest in Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple.

Warren earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the American Academy of Art in Chicago and continued his artistic studies in Florence, Italy, to master the art of portraiture and narrative art. He has created critically acclaimed works, including the narrative painting “In a Promised Land,” capturing the tragic history of the Greenwood Community in the early 1920s in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Warren has been featured in national newspapers, including The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. His work has been exhibited in America and Europe and is in numerous private and institutional collections, including the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, the Law School of the University of Chicago and Indiana University’s School of Education. His public murals can be seen in Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Chicago. Warren is also a member of the U.S. Department of State’s Art in Embassies program, which uses art to promote diplomacy and cultural understanding among nations across the globe.

The Museum’s Commissioned Paintings

Winfrey’s portrait is the latest example of the Portrait Gallery’s commitment to commissioning portraits of living sitters by contemporary artists. The new painting joins more than 30 commissioned portraits by the National Portrait Gallery since 1994. Other recent Portrait Gallery commissions of leading women include former First Lady Michelle Obama; military leaders Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody, USA (Ret.), Adm. Michelle J. Howard, USN (Ret.) and Gen. Janet C. Wolfenbarger, USAF (Ret.); filmmaker and producer Ava DuVernay; athletes and entrepreneurs Venus and Serena Williams; and Rabbi Sally Priesand.

National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the multifaceted story of the United States through the individuals who have shaped American culture. Spanning the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the nation’s story.

The National Portrait Gallery is located at Eighth and G streets N.W., Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Connect with the museum at npg.si.edu and on FacebookInstagramTwitter and YouTube.

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