How Does the Smithsonian Decide Who Gets Into the National Portrait Gallery?

Entertainment tycoon Oprah Winfrey is the latest influential figure to be inducted into the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

Portrait of Oprah wearing purple dress standing in garden
Shawn Michael Warren, Oprah Winfrey, (2023). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Joining the ranks of countless U.S. presidents, billionaires and cultural icons, Oprah Winfrey is the latest figure to be honored with a portrait hanging in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

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The entertainment mogul’s nearly seven-foot-tall portrait was unveiled yesterday (Dec. 13) at a ceremony attended by the likes of Smithsonian secretary Lonnie Bunch and National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet. “To have a portrait inducted into this historic space today, I am grateful, humbled, joyful,” said Winfrey in a statement.

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Chicago-based artist Shawn Michael Warren painted Winfrey in a purple gown to symbolize her appreciation for Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple. The former daytime talk show host is depicted standing in a garden at her Los Angeles home, surrounded by twelve oak trees that Winfrey likens to twelve disciples.

The commission process took nearly five years, partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the National Portrait Gallery, which honored Winfrey for her contributions to popular culture in the realms of media and philanthropy. Warren, meanwhile, was Winfrey’s first choice as an artist because of his Chicago roots and a previous mural featuring her image that he helped create near the West side of Chicago.

The National Portrait Gallery commissioning non-presidential portraits is a relatively new phenomenon. The institution, which shares a historic building in Washington, D.C., with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was first established in 1962 as an Act of Congress and opened to the public six years later. But it wasn’t until 2009 that the National Portrait Gallery unveiled a portrait of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, its first commissioned portrait of an individual who hadn’t served as a U.S. president or been first lady.

Attempts to diversify the field of portraiture

The Shriver portrait was created by artist David Lenz after he won the museum’s inaugural Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2006. Established to broaden the field of portraiture, the competition invites artists to submit work created in the past three years. Winners receive $25,000 and a commission to portray a remarkable living American figure for the institution’s collection, with past recipients including now-prominent artists like Hugo Crosthwaite and Amy Sherald.

Sherald, who in 2016 became both the first African American and the first woman to win the award, went on to paint a commissioned portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama in 2018 for the museum. The work was unveiled alongside Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of former President Barack Obama.

U.S. politicians have long been at the forefront of the gallery’s mission—it holds the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House. gilbert stuart’s 18th-century Lansdowne portrait of george washington has one long been one of the institution’s crown jewels. On loan to the museum since its opening, the National Portrait Gallery acquired the painting in 2001 with the help of donors.

While the museum continues to purchase a range of portraits for its collection, in the 1990s it began commissioning its own. Starting with the 1995 painting of former President George H.W. Bush, it expanded its presidential commissions to include portraits of first ladies in 2006. Curators at the National Portrait Gallery work with the White House near the end of presidential terms to come to a consensus on selected artists for the works, which are subsequently displayed in the museum’s America’s Presidents exhibition.

Although political figures dominated the gallery’s earlier commissions, the institution’s more than thirty-five commissioned portraits of living sitters have since grown to include a diverse array of figures across the fields of science, sports and media. Museum curators have taken on a larger effort to broaden its collection. One of the museum’s more recent commissioned portraits, for example, is of Rabbi Sally Priesand, the gallery’s first featured female rabbi and the first woman ordained as a rabbi by a rabbinical seminary.

The National Portrait Gallery also introduced the biennial Portrait of a Nation Awards in 2015 to further reflect the nation’s diversity. Selected figures, chosen for their contributions to the U.S., often receive commissioned portraits. The most recent edition in 2022 resulted in official portraits for both Serena and Venus Williams and figures like physician-scientist Anthony Fauci and filmmaker Ava DuVernay.

How Does the Smithsonian Decide Who Gets Into the National Portrait Gallery?