In Jacqueline Kennedy III (Jackie III), Warhol selects four of the most powerful images of Jacqueline Kennedy in the hours immediately leading up to, and in the days following, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to produce a unique and powerful work on paper. By grouping them in this way, Warhol has created a dark and poignant memorial to the First Lady’s suffering and strength. Here, he has selected two dark pictures of the mourning Jackie for the top. The first image shows the funeral veil, which here appears as a haze that seems to shroud Jackie’s face. Next to this, Warhol places a more open portrayal of the First Lady, taken on the day the President’s body was taken from the White House to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol. The third screen is probably one of the most emotionally wrenching, a clearly deeply shocked First Lady witnessing the swearing in of the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, at 2.38pm—only 2 hours after her husband was shot. After the intensity of that image, Warhol completes the sequence by including a happy, smiling Jackie, taken in the moments after she and her husband landed in Dallas on that fateful morning.
Given the size and marks around the margins of the photographs, it seems likely that the photographs used here, were the same ones used by Warhol to complete the paintings in that series too. Screened onto proofing paper, the evidence of the artist’s hand can be seen throughout. The areas where the silkscreen ink has bled beyond the edge of the screen onto the paper can be seen, as one imagines Warhol removing the screen from the paper to reveal the impression.
The register of the brilliant blue background against the crispness of the black screen results in an image of extraordinary clarity. In addition, by allowing her face, left bright in comparison with the darker backgrounds, to occupy the large part of each work, Warhol foregrounds the emotional intensity. Like some Orthodox icons, her almost Madonna-like face occupies the large part of each area. Warhol’s picture is thereby filled with her grief, the images becoming a modern-day Pietà, a meditative exploration of grief. This is emphasized by Warhol’s choice of blue as the main color, cold, yet at the same time, absorbing. It is also no coincidence that blue is traditionally the color of Madonna in Renaissance paintings, where her gown was red, representing the earth, and her robe was blue, indicating the heavens— Madonna thus representing a poignant link between Heaven and Earth.
Although Warhol created several variations in different colors, his blue Jackies are arguably the most iconic. Occasionally he would juxtapose brightly colored panels with each other, creating a strange, polychrome effect. Here, though, he has limited himself to the subtlest variations of tone in the blues, with the darkest the most absorbing, heightening to some extent the contrast between before and after. Warhol has expressly made the happiest, the unwitting woman ignorant of her husband’s impending doom, brighter than the others. The shadow around her head seems almost an ominous hint at the disaster to come. Warhol, by contrasting the before and after images, the incredible sudden change, not only of her life, but to the United States as a whole, increases the viewer’s sense of tragedy. There is something carefree about the photograph, especially when compared to the heavy, onerous appearance of the other images.
As David Bourdon writes: “Warhol devised his powerful portraits of Jacqueline Kennedy from news photographs taken before and after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas… By cropping in on Mrs. Kennedy’s face, Warhol emphasized the heavy emotional toll during those tragic closing days in November. The so-called Jackie Portraits, far from displaying any indifference on Warhol’s part to the assassination, clearly reveal how struck he was by her courage during the ordeal” (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 181).
The theme of loss clearly affected Warhol, and by looking at the different treatments of death he created before and after JFK’s assassination, one could argue that it affected his entire output relating to death. After his Jackies, Warhol presented death as something understood, not explicit, by portraying atomic explosions and electric chairs, implying more than presenting. In a sense his portraits of Marilyn Monroe had already done this. However, they too were more explicit, as Marilyn was dead, and famously so, when Warhol began his images of her.