Portraits of Our Time: The National Portrait Gallery’s American Portrait Gala

by Catherine Trifiletti

A scientist, a fashion editor, a former first lady and the richest man on the planet walk into a room. This is not the start of a joke, but in fact the premise surrounding the National Portrait Gallery’s recent American Portrait Gala.

The biennial event, in its third iteration, was established by Wayne and Catherine Reynolds as a way to honor important Americans for their contributions to the country’s consciousness and ultimately, its progress. As host of the program Gayle King summed it up “[NPG] doesn’t just want a bunch of old, dead, white men … it’s people in the middle of their careers who are still thriving, that are still going, that are still changing lives.”

(L-R) Joseph P. Ujobai, Susanna Quinn, Kristin Cecchi, Mrs. Michelle Obama, Kim Sajet and Randi Charno Levine attend The American Portrait Gala 2019 at Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery on Sunday, Nov 17, 2019, in Washington. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Invision for National Portrait Gallery/AP Images)

This year’s honorees for the “Portrait of a Nation” prize included Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Nobel Prize laureate Frances Arnold, Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, Rock’n’Roll Hall of Famers Earth, Wind & Fire, former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and “Hamilton” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda. Each of these individuals chose an artist to complete their portrait to be enshrined on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery. The event serves as a celebratory kick off and unveiling of the commissioned works. NPG Director Kim Sajet explained that the event’s relevance was twofold in that the Gallery is simultaneously spreading the word to patrons and the art community that it collects images of living people by contemporary artists.

An Abundance of Art

Jeff Bezos and Preston Bezos with Robert McCurdy’s portrait of Jeff Bezos.

When one binder full of artists’ work didn’t sway Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder requested another. On choosing Robert McCurdy, Bezos said he hoped to be portrayed hyper-realistically. “I wanted someone who would paint me with every flaw, every imperfection, every piece of scar tissue,” said Bezos.

Big Laughs

James Corden sporting a perfect bob-style wig and oversized black shades to introduce his friend and honoree, Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour.

“Her tenacity, creativity, and resilience have inspired generations of women to believe that they can not only build something, they can keep it, and they can do it all looking fly as hell,” said Corden, during his presentation speech dedicated to Wintour.

Inclusion Matters

“Portrait of a Nation Prize” recipient Indra Nooyi with Kim Sajet. Photo by Tony Powell.

“To be an immigrant of color … [and to be] a woman included in the Portrait Gallery really says that we are a country where people make a positive impact and we celebrate them. It doesn’t matter your background, color or ethnicity,” said Nooyi.

Fashion Forward

Prabal Gurung

The evening’s lead designer, Prabal Gurung, created custom gowns for chairwomen Randi Charno Levine, Kristin Cecchi and Susanna Quinn. “If you look at them, no one gown, like the person, looks the same. My job is to make the most beautiful clothes as possible… but at the same time, I have to make sure the person who’s wearing them feels comfortable,” said Gurung when asked about his creative process.


Photos by Tony Powell, Paul Morigi/AP, Joy Asico/AP and Ryan Kobane.

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