Shawn Michael Warren, “Oprah Winfrey” (2023), oil on linen, 82 x 68 inches (image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

What do you get for the woman who commands a multibillion-dollar media empire? A place in the halls of history, of course. A newly commissioned portrait of Oprah Winfrey joining the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, was unveiled yesterday in a ceremony in the museum’s Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard. The oil painting by Chicago artist Shawn Michael Warren presents the iconic talk show host-turned-media mogul in virtuosic detail, wearing a dramatic purple dress with a full skirt and standing amid a greenscape on the grounds of her California home.

The life-sized framed portrait stands nearly seven feet tall and captures Winfrey flashing an easy smile, her gaze directed as though sharing a joke with someone standing behind the viewer to the right. A piece of greenery in her left hand could be interpreted as an olive branch, though the gesture is not one of extension or proffering, as the botanical symbolism might suggest.  

The dress is made from deep purple taffeta, masterfully rendered to capture the play of light in its folds and shiny surface. The color is apparently Winfrey’s favorite, and references her pivotal acting role in the 1985 Steven Spielberg film The Color Purple, based on the novel by Alice Walker. Winfrey has maintained her relationship with the franchise, as producer of a new film adaptation set to open on Christmas Day. Never one to waste a promotional opportunity, Winfrey plugged the movie in her speech at the unveiling, urging the audience to “get your tickets.”

On hand for the unveiling ceremony, Winfrey stood with Warren to see his finished work of her likeness for the very first time.

Oprah Winfrey seemed temporarily stunned by the reveal of artist Shawn Michael Warren’s portrait. (screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

“I have never seen it,” she assured the audience before helping to pull the cloth on the massive, framed work. Winfrey seemed temporarily stunned as she examined Warren’s work for a long moment. Uncharacteristically quiet, Winfrey finally clapped a few times and went in to give the painter a hug.

“You did a great job,” she then told Warren. For a person who has been working in front of cameras for nearly 50 years and had her portrait taken literally thousands of times, Winfrey seemed legitimately moved by the experience.

Warren grew up in Chicago, where The Oprah Winfrey Show was broadcast for two decades, and had previously rendered Winfrey’s image in 2020 as part of a large-scale mural co-created with artists Jane Barthès, Anna Murphy, and Kalan Strauss. The mural is situated in Chicago’s West Loop, where Winfrey’s Harpo Studios once filmed the weekday talk show.

While an icon for many, Winfrey has also been criticized for her longtime engagement with diet culture, including peddling fad diets and using her considerable cultural clout to platform figures with questionable ethics, including Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz.

It could be argued that Oprah is among the most photographed people in the world, and one more image could hardly make a difference for a media icon of her stature — but it seemed, for a moment at least, that this one picture outweighed all her words. YOU get a portrait, Oprah! We haven’t seen her this excited since she released all those bees on a studio audience:

YouTube video

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *