Like a Russian icon, the shimmering gold which bathes this veiled 'Madonna' shows Jacqueline Kennedy, the recently-bereaved First Lady of the USA, at the funeral of her late husband, John F. Kennedy. Executed in 1964, immediately following his tragic assassination in November 1963, Jackie perfectly captures her calm dignity; the composition of the picture, which closes in on the head to the exclusion of the outside world, increases the sense of tender intimacy that is heightened by its scale, with the head shown essentially in life-size, increasing the directness and immediacy of this absorbing image. In his Jackie series, Warhol added Kennedy's widow to his pantheon of female stars, alongside Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Just as Christian images of the Virgin celebrate her not as a martyr but as the mother of Christ: this golden portrait of the grieving woman becomes a form of contemporary Pietéga, a modern image of devotion, a re-imagining of the religious icons of old. In this way, Jackie recalls Warhol's own Ruthenian Catholic background while also showing the artist both attacking and rejuvenating an ancient artistic tradition.
It was on 22 November the previous year that the Kennedy assassination had rocked the world. The glamorous, even heroic president who had ushered in so much good will and optimism was shot in Texas, unleashing an almost unheralded barrage of media coverage. Almost immediately, Warhol set about assembling a mass of source materials which were eventually filtered down to eight key images, those which are seen in the various different configurations of Jackie. Some show Jackie smiling before the assassination, some show her looking dignified at the swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson as the new president, and four show her at the funeral, two unveiled and two veiled; Jackie takes one of the latter images. The full range of images were arranged on a single large silkscreen, with each image shown side by side in four rows, and Warhol would mask them according to which shot he wished to capture on canvas, as is evidenced by the overlap at the top and side of this work (it was second from the top and on the right of the original grouping, hence the corners of four pictures being visible in the upper left). All eight images of the First Lady were shown together, in a grouping of individual panels, in Warhols The Week that Was, named after David Frost's legendary BBC satirical current affairs programme That Was the Week that Was, which was aired in the USA during 1963 and 1964.
In artistic terms, Warhol responded to the assassination only the following year in his Jackie series, the first major group of pictures he created in his new studio, the legendary Factory. Looking at its gleaming metallic surface, one wonders if it relates to the silver paint and foil in which Billy Name enshrouded the space that year. Two years later, Warhol returned to the theme of the Kennedy assassination in an unfinished movie, Since, in which the events in Fort Worth were played out in a deliberately self-conscious, lo-fi and often comic manner by the various characters who hung out in the Factory. This seemingly irreverent take on the assassination reveals Warhols interest in the storm that surrounded the event, rather than the event itself. So too, his image of the mourning Jackie is in part an image of an image, a fragment of media-created popular culture taken and placed in a Warholian shrine in order to highlight its own artifice.
Warhol himself claimed to have been unmoved by the Kennedy assassination when discussing it later. By contrast, those around him recall him being distraught. His friend and assistant Gerard Malanga recalled the pair being shocked and burying themselves in work, creating a print of a movie still showing a vampire biting a woman's neck, The Kiss (Bela Lugosi). Warhol disingenuously claimed that he had gathered a group of people around him during the day, hoping to distract himself, but was annoyed by their depression at the events; by contrast, John Giorno, the poet who featured in his movie Sleep, recalled his own visit to Warhol: 'I started crying, and Andy started crying. We wept big, fat tears. It was a symbol of the catastrophe of our own lives' (J. Giorno, quoted in L. McNeil & G. McCain (ed.), Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, New York, 2006, p. 411).
The fact that Warhol's recollections focussed on his own (seemingly fictitious) cool, emotional distance from these events is undermined by the existence of this series in its own right. Warhol's images of Jackie Kennedy were almost unique in forming a significant series that was created without any commission or exhibition in mind. They appear to have been a personal response, and even the critics at the time noted the emotional content implicit in the images, absent from even his Death and Disaster images. Referring to the inclusion of an image of Jackie Kennedy in a Warhol exhibition at the beginning of 1965, Thomas B. Hess wrote wryly, 'Warhol had better keep these lapses... under control, or he might turn into a human artist' (T.B. Hess, 'Reviews and Previews: New Names this Month: Andy Warhol', reproduced in S.H. Madoff (ed.), Pop Art: A Critical History, Berkeley & London, 1997, p. 281). This rare glimpse of humanity through the industrial, machine, robot faade that Warhol so carefully cultivated as a part of his public persona reveals Warhol's humanity, his own religious belief, his distress at the loss of that age of optimism that had been heralded by the Kennedy election and also, in this intimate devotional at the altar of celebrity, his love of glamour.