Painted just months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, Andy Warhol’s Jackie remains one of his greatest and most iconic paintings. In Jackie, Warhol immortalizes the moment before the president’s death on that chilly autumn afternoon in Dallas, Texas. Clad in her fashionable pink Chanel suit and coordinating pillbox hat, with her hair slightly tousled by the wind, Jackie is caught in a frozen smile as she arrives with the president at Love Field. Warhol forces attention towards Jackie’s face, closely cropping the original news photograph that’s become synonymous with the event itself. In this particular example, one also clearly glimpses the unmistakable profile of John F. Kennedy himself in the upper left corner, flashing a beaming smile just before the motorcade began its fateful journey toward Dealey Plaza. The relaxed air of nonchalance of the presidential couple that Warhol highlights in Jackie remains all the more chilling considering the harrowing events that inevitably followed. Cloaked in an ethereal veil of pale cerulean blue, Jackie is a poignant snapshot that lingers with the calculating mix of tragedy, glamour and celebrity that pervades Warhol’s best work. Like his portraits of Marilyn and Liz, Warhol highlights the tragic beauty of Camelot’s queen, seizing upon the media frenzy that dominated nearly every major news outlet in the hours and days following Kennedy’s death.
In Jackie, Warhol celebrates an American archetype, presenting a stylish and youthful first lady. This is the “Jackie” so beloved by the American public. A venerable fashion icon, her effortless elegance and classic sense of style galvanized the nation during the early years of the 1960s. In Jackie, she epitomizes the youth, vitality and glamour of Camelot. She wears the pink Chanel suit and matching pillbox hat with her hair done in a fresh flip, and her face displays a casual and effortless smile. The pink Chanel suit that Jackie wore on that fateful day, made from a strawberry-colored wool bouclé, was one of the president’s favorites, and has become synonymous with the event itself. (Jackie famously refused to take it off despite it being stained with the president’s blood). Rather than depict the image in full color, however, Warhol turns the image into its ghostly opposite, rendering the scene in a wash of pale blue acrylic that he hand-painted with a wide brush. Warhol reserved only three colors for the Jackie series—blue, white and gold—and critics have compared his portrayal to the religious icons of his youth. The contrast of the original source image is heightened to create a more dramatic effect, and the background of the painting is utterly seeped in darkness. The first lady’s image is locked into place by silkscreen ink, captured in photographic precision, and frozen in time.
Of the eight different photographs that Warhol selected for the Jackie series, only two of them depict a smiling, youthful Jackie. The others are taken from photographs of a stunned and somber woman aboard Air Force One as Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president, and then at the funeral of John F. Kennedy three days later. In the weeks and months following Kennedy’s assassination, Warhol and his assistant Gerard Malanga carefully monitored the news, gathering materials from newspapers and magazines. By the end of February of 1964 (just over two months after the assassination), Warhol had selected the final eight images that would define the Jackie series. These included photographs from the New York Daily News (November 25, 1963), Life magazine (December 6, 1963) and a special commemorative magazine called Four Dark Days (Special Publications, Los Angeles, 1963). The cinematic images that Warhol selected have a storytelling aspect to them, essentially functioning as “bookends” to the assassination. While they never actually reveal the moment when the president was shot, the attest to the moments of terror, anxiety and grief that collectively gripped the nation.
Warhol was keenly attuned to the barrage of photographs and videos that were endlessly repeated throughout the news cycle as the American public came to terms with Kennedy’s death. The three major networks stayed on the air for seventy hours in a row (a news event marathon only surpassed by coverage of the 911 Terror Attacks). Warhol, along with the nation at large, relied upon Mrs. Kennedy as their “emotional barometer” in the days following the assassination, and indeed her displays of public mourning are some of the most remarkable images of the twentieth century. Whether standing grimly beside Lyndon B. Johnson on Air Force One or shrouded behind a black veil at the president’s funeral a few days later, Jackie Kennedy mourned her husband while in full display of the entire world. In many ways, Kennedy’s death enshrined Jackie as a secular saint, and Warhol almost immediately perceived the power and gravitas of her position.
“When President Kennedy was shot that fall, I heard the news over the radio while I was alone painting in my studio... I’d been thrilled having Kennedy as president; he was handsome, young, smart—but it didn’t bother me that much that he was dead,” Warhol had famously remarked after the president’s death. But his callous comment stemmed from the media’s handling of the event. Their constant barrage of photographs and video were essentially repeated in a 24-hour loop. The same few images were run over and over in a mind-numbing succession. “What bothered me was the way the television and radios were programming everybody to feel so sad... It seemed like no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t get away from the thing” (A. Warhol, quoted in P. Hackett, POPism: The Warhol ‘60s, New York, 1980, p. 60). In response, Warhol created literally hundreds of Jackies, and when he displayed them later that year at the Castelli gallery—nearly one year to the day of Kennedy’s assassination—he showed forty-two of them in a grid-like arrangement, as if to parallel the media saturation. “The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel,” he explained (A. Warhol, quoted in P. Hackett, ibid., p. 50).