The Warhol Portraits

Jackie's grief inspired compassion, pity, admiration — and art. Andy Warhol, a successful commercial illustrator, became one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century by using popular culture as his canvas. In the early 1960s, Warhol began producing paintings featuring famous and iconographic American products, such as Campbell's Soup cans, and celebrities, including Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. He also used newspaper photographs of current events. During the summer of 1962, he created 129 Die in Jet, based on a photograph run by the New York Mirror that showed the wreckage of a fatal plane crash. From that point on, he frequently used death as an underlying theme in his work.

The Monroe Portraits

After Marilyn Monroe's death on August 5, 1962, Warhol used a publicity photo Gene Korman had taken of Monroe on the set of the film Niagara in 1953, cropped it to fit the canvas he was working on, and silkscreened it. It would become his signature style.


What is silkscreening?

To silkscreen an image, Warhol enlarged a photograph and transferred it in glue onto silk fabric. He then rolled ink across it so that the ink went through the silk but not the glue. That resulted in images that were essentially the same but still unique because each was slightly different due to the inking process.

He followed the Marilyn portraits with a series of suicide paintings. He scoured old newspaper clippings, magazines, and photograph collections for images of suicide. By November 1963, Warhol was working on a new series called Death and Disaster. The Kennedy assassination reaffirmed Warhol's view that the news media was morbidly fascinated with death and equally obsessed with celebrity. After the assassination turned Jackie into a symbol of national grief, it was inevitable that Warhol would find Jackie an irresistible subject. He was especially intrigued by her ability to spin the media in creating the Camelot mythology.

Flash — November 22, 1963

In late 1963, Warhol began painting a series of small portraits depicting Jackie as the grieving widow. He produced hundreds of paintings that illustrated how Jackie had become an icon through the tragedy. He also produced a series of eleven screen prints, complete with text, titled Flash — November 22, 1963, that recreated news wire copy. The Flash series examines the media coverage of the assassination and its aftermath, which Warhol construed as a barrage on the senses.

Although Warhol was considered a provocateur, challenging and expanding the notion of what exactly art is, he was also an astute observer and his canvases now reflect the changing social climate and mores of the country. One of his more powerful series was based on photographs of police dogs attacking civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama. The two series featuring Jackie were equally perceptive in that he used her as the symbol of an event that would forever change America.


“What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too…. All the Cokes are the same, and all the Cokes are good.”

— Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol:(From A to B and Back Again)

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