“The pictures nevertheless recognize… the distance between public mourning and that of the principals in this drama. Out of his deliberately limited resources, [Warhol] creates a nuance and subtlety of response that is his alone, precisely because he has not sought technically to surpass his raw material … In his particular dramatization of medium, Warhol found room for a dramatization of feeling and even a kind of history painting” (T. Crow in Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol, from October Files: Andy Warhol, Cambridge, 2001, p. 55).
Andy Warhol’s Jackie is one of the most iconic and personal works in the artist’s oeuvre. Painted in 1964, Warhol’s shocking portrait was created almost immediately after John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, while the president’s tragic death still echoed in the American consciousness. Following closely on the heels of Warhol’s iconic paintings of Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor, Jackie continues the artist’s exploration into one of the central themes of his work: the dichotomy of the glamour and hollowness of celebrity juxtaposed with intensely personal and heartfelt moments of tragedy and death. While Marilyn examines this clash in the context of Hollywood, Jackie confronts a larger subject—that of American history itself.
Warhol painted Jackie using his legendary silkscreen process, mechanically transferring the image of Kennedy’s widow directly from a news photograph onto canvas. Warhol selected a snapshot of Jackie taken moments before Kennedy’s assassination, as she arrived with the president at Dallas airport and rode in the infamous, fatal motorcade. JFK’s head can be seen in the top-left of the image, but Warhol has cropped the photograph in on Jackie, nearly removing Kennedy from the composition. His presence, however, remains in the background of the picture as a ghostly shadow, hovering over the proceedings. Instead, Jackie becomes the central figure in the tragedy. By focusing on Jackie and removing JFK, Warhol forefronts the pain of those left behind rather than the gruesomeness of the murder itself. Instead of rendering the image in naturalistic colors, Warhol leaves the viewer with a painting in two colors—deep black and cerulean blue—transforming Jackie’s recognizable pink outfit into one of mourning. As a painting, Jackie becomes a study in blue, harkening back to symbolism from religious portraiture of the Renaissance where ultramarine blue, a pigment so rare that it was valued more highly than gold, was reserved almost exclusively for the Virgin Mary. This Catholic sentiment recalls Warhol’s religious upbringing. Raised in the Eastern Orthodox tradition in Pennsylvania, Warhol’s childhood experiences with the divine would have been replete with Byzantine icons. These sacred works share a common formal language, which focuses on the faces of saints and martyrs. Not accidentally, the organization of Warhol’s Jackie mirrors that of the Eastern icons. Through a subtle handling of color and composition, Warhol transforms Jackie Kennedy from First Lady to religious icon—a secular saint for an increasingly agnostic America.
Because Warhol painted the work so soon after the murder, Jackie transcends the realm of portraiture to become a larger commentary on news media itself. After JFK’s assassination, America was consumed with grief, and Jackie Kennedy became a stand-in for the country’s sadness, an archetype for a nation in mourning. Images of Kennedy’s widow flooded televisions and newspapers on a daily basis. Through the mechanical action of the silkscreen process, Warhol mimics this endless repetition of the printing press, actively repeating an image designed specifically for consumption. By commenting on capitalism’s commodification of information, Warhol draws parallels between images of tragedy and images of advertising, connecting Jackie to the famous Campbell’s Soup Cans of 1962. But the endless repetition of the images from Kennedy’s death had another effect. Through excessive duplication, the power of the image is eroded, dulling the emotional impact of the event. Warhol commented directly on this modern paradox of replication, "The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel" (A. Warhol quoted in POPism: The Warhol Sixties, New York, 1980, p. 50).
Brilliantly, Warhol transforms what could have been a simple portrait into a modern-day history painting. Just like Édouard Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1869) or Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), Warhol’s Jackie embraces the sentiment of its time, memorializing the emotive power of history through art. But Warhol departs from his predecessors by utilizing not the standard techniques and materials of brush and oil on canvas, but rather the process of silkscreen and photography so inherently linked to the 20th century. Jackie became the first Pop-Art history painting, and paved the way for such works as Gerhard Richter’s epic Baader-Meinhof series in 1988. The critic Thomas Crow, writing for October, agrees, “The pictures nevertheless recognize… the distance between public mourning and that of the principals in this drama. Out of his deliberately limited resources, [Warhol] creates a nuance and subtlety of response that is his alone, precisely because he has not sought technically to surpass his raw material … In his particular dramatization of medium, Warhol found room for a dramatization of feeling and even a kind of history painting” (T. Crow in Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol, from October Files: Andy Warhol, Cambridge, 2001, p. 55).