There is no single standard by which one’s image is deemed worthy of inclusion in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Politicians, including presidents, are represented simply because they held power, no matter how they used or abused it. Celebrity is the reigning currency recently, and the museum is widely agnostic about what kinds of fame are honored. Great wealth is celebrated, too, though usually couched in more palatable terms, such as influence, public service or philanthropy.
Oprah Winfrey could come through any of those doors: wealth, power, influence, even political sway, given her endorsement of Barack Obama for president in 2006 and her overtures to Mitt Romney to run against Donald Trump in 2020. And now a formal, commissioned painting of her likeness has entered the National Portrait Gallery collection, joining photographs and prints that document the decades-long career of the daytime talk-show host and media mogul.
It’s one thing to have your portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. It’s entirely another to have your portrait formally unveiled there, in the grand central atrium with a crowd of adoring onlookers. That space was full and rapturous on Wednesday morning, when Winfrey’s portrait was finally revealed in an event as precisely choreographed as the February 2018 reveal of the Barack and Michelle Obama portraits.
Winfrey attended, as did Chicago artist Shawn Michael Warren, who painted the full-length image. Lonnie G. Bunch III, the secretary of the Smithsonian and formerly the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, was there, too, and he acknowledged that Winfrey’s support for that fledgling museum helped propel him to his current position.
“We the country are in your debt, Oprah,” he said before the unveiling.
A full 10 minutes before Winfrey and Smithsonian officials took the stage, a reverential hush fell over the audience.
“It’s like church,” said one woman in the crowd.
And so it was. At 10:12 a.m., every cellphone in the cavernous room was raised toward the dais, where Warren’s picture was hidden behind a black cloth. The artist and Winfrey did the honors, pulling gently on the veil, which fell off to reveal her in the voluminous folds of a purple taffeta gown, standing in her own prayer garden, surrounded by oak trees, holding in her extended left hand an olive branch.
It is a traditional image, a figurative representation meant to be read for its details and symbolism rather than any formal experimentation. Winfrey is smiling and winsome, with just a few strands of gray hair to acknowledge the passage of time. Warren has rendered the satiny texture of the gown effectively, and the shadows behind her give a compelling sense of both a warm, sunny day and the coolness of a well-shaded garden. The garden is neatly tended, but not immaculate, rather like Winfrey’s carefully curated public persona: always almost perfect, but not entirely so, because her appeal depends on being human, like us.
Warren chose a careful but smart path, not overthinking the image. Winfrey is one of the most photographed and filmed figures in the world, which is saturated with images. She also, famously, declared independence from her own body: “I know for sure that I am not my body,” she said after years of agonizing over body issues and weight.
She once appeared on the cover of Forbes Magazine in a regal pose, looming over Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, both of whom sat politely beneath her. But Warren, who also painted her as part of a collaborative mural in Chicago in 2020, didn’t go that route, either. Nor did he capture perhaps the most iconic of her poses, arms stretched out as if to embrace her audience, rapturously returning the gesture of love and affirmation.
Instead, the artist chose simplicity, capturing the star alone, happy, at peace with herself, as if appearing on the cover of her own magazine.
After the reveal, Winfrey spoke as she often does of her rags-to-riches story, her ambition and her gratitude, her rise from poverty in rural Mississippi to her eminence as the richest African American of the 20th century. She mentioned the famous wash tub in which her grandmother boiled the family’s clothes, and her certainty at a very young age that she was destined for something better.
“I am living and breathing God’s dream for me, today,” Winfrey said. She had much to say about the purple dress, a favorite color, and the importance of her role in the 1985 Steven Spielberg film “The Color Purple,” not just to her rise to fame, but also to her independence as an entertainer and entrepreneur.
But she didn’t discuss the olive branch, which is the single, most prominent symbol in the painting. It is, obviously, a well-recognized symbol of peace. But it is also a deeply Christian image, the first small green sign of hope borne back by a dove to Noah, in his ark, after God slaughtered the rest of humanity in a devastating flood.
A symbol of peace and a reminder of the cruel, capricious nature of our haunted world. One would have liked to hear more about it, from Winfrey or Warren, but the closest she came was a reference to a poem by Maya Angelou, written for Winfrey’s 50th birthday. “My wish for you/ Is that you continue … To astonish a mean world/ With your acts of kindness,” said Winfrey, reciting from memory the ode composed in her honor.
Wednesday’s ceremony was more festive than the one five years ago for the Obamas, which took place after the election of Donald Trump, who was undoing much of the Obama legacy. But the olive branch is a reminder of the valedictory nature of most formal portraits. Winfrey the mogul has many more acts before her, no doubt, and she managed to work into her speech a plug for the forthcoming remake of “The Color Purple.” “Get your tickets now,” she said.
But the age of Oprah is over. For decades, she offered Americans a tantalizing fantasy: that our grandest problems could be solved by talking them over, by confessing our sins, by hugging those we find frightening or alien. It was the last efflorescence of the liberal ideal, the tail end of the civil rights era, a passing apogee of American hope between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Obama years.
Winfrey borrowed from politicians, and they borrowed back, and it seemed for a while that there might indeed be a post-racial America, whatever that might mean. She did truth and reconciliation, and Nelson Mandela was a guest on her program. Both Bill Clinton and Obama would borrow from her approach, too, using the public confessional as a political tool for reconciliation. Winfrey’s audience of White women didn’t see her as Black, while her audience of Black women found her an inspirational exemplar of African American success. Like the sunny day and the rich shadows of the portrait, it’s hard to pull off that careful balance of identity, and it’s not clear whether anyone after her will be able to do it in our polarized and mean world.
It’s astonishing to think that America produced both Oprah and Trump, who arrived as a kind of anti-Oprah, exploiting a litany of things that were standard topics on her show: racism, misogyny, xenophobia. His style was anti-Oprah, too, a monologue rather than a conversation, bullying and mockery rather than empathy, division rather than concord. They both offered hope and affirmation, but they affirmed very different things. Both styles have always existed, of course, and now it’s just a matter of which one will win out in the end.
Trump is angling to be president once again, promising vengeance. And Winfrey’s portrait now hangs in the first-floor galleries of the National Portrait Gallery, her hand outstretched with an olive branch. It is, of course, a painted image, and no matter how hard you try to reach out and grab it, it’s just an illusion, like something you once saw on television.