Created by
Nelson, Kadir, American, born 1974
Subject of
Lacks, Henrietta, American, 1920 - 1951
oil on linen
H x W (Painting): 59 1/2 × 49 1/2 in. (151.1 × 125.7 cm)
H x W x D (Frame): 79 1/2 × 69 1/2 × 5 in. (201.9 × 176.5 × 12.7 cm)
"Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer on October 4, 1951 at the age of 31. During an examination, cells were taken from her body without her knowledge or consent by a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and were subsequently used to produce the world’s first immortal cell line, called HeLa. Henrietta’s cells were paramount to some of the most important advances and research in modern medicine, including the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, gene mapping, and in-vitro fertilization. Henrietta’s unique cells continue to be used extensively for medical research and development to this day.
I elected to paint a prideful and glowing portrait of Henrietta lacks who is often referred to as, "The Mother of Modern Medicine," visually juxtaposing faith and science. Lacks smiles innocently. She stands with her beautifully manicured hands crossed, covering her womb (the birthplace of the immortal cell line) while cradling her beloved Bible (a symbol of her strong faith). Her deep red dress is covered with a vibrant floral pattern that recalls images of cell structure and division, while two of the four dime-sized buttons on her dress are noticeably missing (a reference to the cells that were taken from her body without her knowledge). Her bright yellow hat functions as a halo (recalling Renaissance paintings of the Madonna), while pearls (a symbol of the aggressive cancer that took her life) hang from her neck. The decorative wallpaper behind her forms a repeated hexagonal pattern, a design containing the "flower of life", an ancient symbol of immortality and exponential growth - two distinctive qualities of her rare and incredibly durable cells."
-Kadir Nelson, 2017.
Oil painting of Henrietta Lacks by Kadir Nelson. Lacks, smiling, is depicted standing in the center of the image. She is facing forward with her hands clasped in front of her body, holding a black book with gold-colored text [HOLY BIBLE]. Lacks is wearing a red dress with a white flower pattern and small belt. The dress has central buttons, with two (2) missing. There is a flower accessory with three (3) pearls in the center above the buttons. Lacks is wearing a wedding ring and a pearl necklaces and earrings. She has a cream and tan hat, the circular brim of which acts like a halo behind her head. Lacks is standing in front of a cream wall with a blue geometric "Flower of Life" motif. The work is signed in the lower right.
Visual Arts
oil paintings
Credit Line
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and National Portrait Gallery, Gift from Kadir Nelson and the JKBN Group, LLC
Object number
Restrictions & Rights
© 2017, Kadir Nelson
Permission required for use. Proper usage is the responsibility of the user.

Cataloging is an ongoing process and we may update this record as we conduct additional research and review. If you have more information about this object, please contact us at

Share this page