A New Portrait of Oprah Winfrey Enters the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection

Commissioned by the Washington, D.C. institution, the portrait was painted by Chicago artist Shawn Michael Warren.

Shawn Michael Warren, Oprah Winfrey (2023). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., has unveiled the latest addition to its permanent collection: a radiant, full-length portrait of television icon Oprah Winfrey, painted by Chicago-based artist Shawn Michael Warren. 

Measuring about six feet by five feet, the work depicts Winfrey in a purple taffeta dress, posed smilingly with a stalk of leaves in her hand amid the garden in her California home. The portrait was revealed at a December 13 ceremony attended by Winfrey, Warren, and Kim Sajet, the museum’s director.  

“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 in a statement. “Her vision and spirit deserve recognition in the nation’s portrait gallery.”

Oprah Winfrey speaks on stage during her portrait unveiling ceremony at Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery on December 13, 2023 in Washington, DC. Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

Oprah Winfrey speaks on stage during her portrait unveiling ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery on December 13, 2023 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

Beginning in the late 1980s, Winfrey made a name for herself (literally: she’s simply and more fondly known as Oprah) with her daytime talk show, which ran for 25 years. The influence of The Oprah Winfrey Show was such that it would come to shape America’s wellness, self-improvement, and literary culture, particularly with the ongoing Oprah’s Book Club. In 2013, Winfrey was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which joined her many other accolades from Emmy to Peabody awards. 

In addition to running the Oprah Winfrey Network, launched in 2011, Winfrey has also established a presence on the silver screen. Most prominently, she played the strong-minded Sofia in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation The Color Purple—a role that earned Winfrey an Academy Award nomination and that is referenced in Warren’s commission. 

Oprah Winfrey and Shawn Michael Warren at the portrait unveiling ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery on December 13, 2023 in Washington, DC. Photo: © Tony Powell.

At the portrait’s unveiling, Winfrey, now 69, noted that purple has been “seminal” for her, which likely helped her decision to don the violet-hued Christian Siriano gown for the portrait. The sitting, Warren said, was also led by Winfrey herself. 

“I usually tell my models how to pose,” he told CNN. “But because it’s her, I said to her verbatim, ‘I don’t have to tell you how to pose. You’ve been in front of a camera for as long as I’ve been alive.'” 

The Chicago native is best known for his hyperrealist paintings and murals that have paid tribute to Black figures from Martin Luther King to Maya Angelou. According to Rhea L. Combs, the National Portrait Gallery’s director of curatorial affairs who commissioned the painting, Warren approaches his portraits with “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,” she added, referring to his portrait of Winfrey. 

Winfrey herself, in an Instagram post, thanked Warren for “capturing my essence,” adding: “Of all the dreams I’ve had, I didn’t even know there was a national gallery to dream and aspire for. From Mississippi to the National Portrait Gallery in the nation’s capital, wow.” 

Winfrey’s portrait is now on view on the museum’s first floor. 


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