Painting honoring Oprah Winfrey unveiled at Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

ByLisa Respers France, CNN, CNNWire
Thursday, December 14, 2023
Painting honoring Oprah Winfrey unveiled at Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery
Oprah Winfrey's portrait was unveiled at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery on Wednesday.

A portrait of Oprah Winfrey was unveiled at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery on Wednesday. Shawn Michael Warren can thank the mural for connecting him with his very famous muse.

Three years ago, the Chicago artist painted Oprah Winfrey's image as part of a mural in the city's West Loop neighborhood, curated by the B_Line Projects to honor the media mogul whose famed talk show and production company had been based in the area.

In a video Warren shared on Instagram at the time, Winfrey said when she first saw the mural it took her "breath away."

"I was so impressed by Shawn Michael Warren's artistry, the creativity, the way he was able to capture a feeling of hope and inspiration and strength," she said of his work.

Fast forward to Wednesday in Washington, DC, where the artist and Winfrey were together to unveil a new portrait Warren painted of her for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

The painting shows Winfrey looking resplendent in a purple dress, holding an olive branch.

In the audience were Winfrey's best friend Gayle King, friend and director Ava DuVernay and Winfrey's longtime love Stedman Graham, watching as the former talk show host appeared joyous when Warren unveiled her portrait and she saw it for the first time.

While sharing context for the portrait, Winfrey told the crowd that the color purple "has been seminal" in her life. Her role in the 1985 film "The Color Purple" helped make her a movie star and she's a producer on the upcoming film version of "The Color Purple" musical.

She referenced her favorite bible verse, Acts 17: 28, which states in part: "For in him we live and move and have our being."

That scripture came to her mind, Winfrey said, when she was recently struck by the beauty and light outside a window of her home in Montecito, California.

"I thought 'I am moving and breathing in the space that is God right now,'" Winfrey recalled. "And I am living in this dream that God had for me. 'Cause I don't know how I got from [her birthplace in] Mississippi to Montecito."

It was her Montecito home which provided the backdrop for her portrait.

In an interview with CNN, Warren said he and his friend Darius Carter, a Los Angeles-based photographer who is originally from Chicago, traveled to Winfrey's house and shot about 600 images of her in Winfrey's most sacred of spaces, her prayer garden.

And while he helped suggest the dress she wore, Warren said he gave Winfrey free rein to move as she saw fit for the portrait session.

"I usually tell my models how to pose, 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,'" Warren said.

He thanked Winfrey during his remarks on Wednesday, calling her his "friend and muse."

"You could have chosen anyone, but you saw fit that an artist from the place you called home during your rise to prominence should be given this honor," Warren said of Winfrey. "Thank you for your kindness, your trust, your playfulness, welcoming us into your home, and allowing us to capture your portrait."

In her speech, Winfrey got emotional as she referenced other notable people throughout history whose portraits also hang in the gallery, including Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Ida B. Wells, former first lady Michelle and President Barack Obama, Lena Horne and President John F. Kennedy.

Entrepreneur Mack Wilbourn serves as a commissioner for the National Portrait Gallery and told CNN that Winfrey was an ideal choice for a portrait given her cultural influence and how she's helped change the world.

"This is just another milestone," he said. "One that is well deserved and will be around for centuries to come."

Winfrey closed her remarks by noting that she'll turn 70 in January, and she recalled that 20 years ago, her mentor, the late poet and writer Maya Angelou, wrote a poem for her birthday.

"One of my favorite lines she says in the poem is that 'I hope you continue to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness. And I hope that gratitude will be the pillow on which you kneel every night,'" Winfrey said. "I want you to know that that is exactly what I intend to do. To continue to astonish a mean world with my acts of kindness and continue to live in the space of gratitude and move and have my being in awe of that which is God. To God be the glory."

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