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National Portrait Gallery opens its doors to diversity with Henrietta Lacks painting

The National Portrait Gallery is celebrating its 50th anniversary by including more faces of color and figures who have historically been overlooked.

One of the first paintings on display at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery shows a woman in a bright red dress with a motherly smile. Her neatly manicured hands are shown gently clutching a Bible.

The painting depicts Henrietta Lacks, a mother of five who died of cervical cancer in 1951. She unknowingly became a part of history when, during her treatment, doctors removed some of her cancer cells to be used for research. The results would go on to revolutionize medicine and play a key role in developing the polio vaccine, saving millions of lives around the world.

“She’s such a huge figure in American history that we don’t really know about,” said Kadir Nelson, the artist behind the Lacks portrait. “And hopefully, this painting will help spread that story.”

As the National Portrait Gallery celebrates its 50th anniversary, curators are making some changes to the collection. Their intent is to include more faces of color and figures who are typically excluded.

Nelson’s portrait of Lacks at the Smithsonian Institution is part of that effort. Together, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture commissioned the artist to create a portrait to be shared between the two museums.

Months after his work was unveiled, Nelson entered the gallery on a quiet summer morning to view his work in its new home for the first time. In an exclusive interview with NBC News, he explained why he hopes his work will serve as a history lesson to viewers.

“The idea is that when you walk by the painting, you’re stopped in your tracks,” he said. “Not only because it’s beautiful, but because it reminds you of something. It draws you in and makes you think for a minute.”

The portrait hangs just inside the gallery’s main entrance, in the same spot that initially housed Michelle Obama’s portrait. It’s a prominent location.

And according to Dorothy Moss, associate curator for the National Portrait Gallery, that is exactly the point.

“We wanted to acknowledge that we are making a true effort to show the stories of people whose lives have been left out of textbooks,” she said. “Whose stories have not been known broadly until recently.”

“I want people to learn that she was a real, living, and breathing person, who was very caring. Who unknowingly contributed to their lives."

Kadir Nelson

“Portraiture has historically been about the elite. Commissioned portraiture was available to people who were wealthy and could pay artists to create their portraits,” Moss said.

“And so what we’re doing right now is opening up who we show on the walls. Not just the elite people who could afford a portrait, but all of the people who have built this country.”

The gallery is working to shake its reputation as a “stodgy conservative hall of presidents, of white men,” Moss said, by working to paint a more complete picture of America’s history.

Kimberley Lacks knew of the initiative but didn’t realize what a prominent role her grandmother would play.

“Nobody told us that when you come in, it’s right there. Soon as you walk through those doors!” she said. “I just happened to look up like, wow! It’s the first portrait you see when you walk in. My grandmother!”

In recent years, the story of Henrietta Lacks has been brought out of the shadows of American history, thanks in large part to a 2010 book by Rebecca Skloot that was later made into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey.

For Nelson, creating the portrait was like etching a history lesson into the canvas. There is symbolism at every turn: two buttons missing from Lacks’ dress to represent the cells taken without her permission. A pearl necklace, symbolizing the “pearl-like” tumors in her body. A sunhat that doubles as a halo. And the wallpaper background – depicting a circular pattern known as “The Flower of Life.”

A celebrated artist, Nelson’s work ranges from American presidents to the Negro Baseball League, with images gracing album covers and magazine covers alike. He says of the hundreds of works he has created, this one holds special significance.

Staring up at the portrait, he pondered what he wants the many thousands of viewers to take away from his work.

“I want people to learn that she was a real, living, and breathing person, who was very caring. Who unknowingly contributed to their lives,” Nelson said. “I hope that people will be able to find their own sense of immortality through her story.”