Tragedy in Pop Art: Andy Warhol’s Depiction of the Kennedys

Showing a doubled press photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy just moments before the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Left largely untouched by the artist, the image is rendered in black and purple, maintaining a grainy quality, like that of the original newspaper image.Jacqueline Kennedy II (F. & S. II.14) © Andy Warhol 1966
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In the pantheon of American popular culture, few families have been as iconic and speculated upon as the Kennedys. Hailed as American royalty, their story is one of triumph and tragedy, of vast public appeal intertwined with intimate sorrow. And in the vibrant world of Pop Art, no one illustrated this fascination better than Andy Warhol. Warhol, a maestro of merging popular culture with high art, recognised the Kennedys as contemporary symbols of the American Dream. His portrayal was not merely a reflection of the family's public image but an exploration of America's obsession with celebrity, power, success and misfortune.

The Kennedy Mystique: Warhol and America's Royal Family

As the 1960s roared, America witnessed a cultural evolution, one in which the Kennedys stood at the epicentre. Their dazzling public persona — a youthful president with a stylish wife, whose vigour and charm seemed to redefine the American spirit — was overshadowed by events that would mark the nation's collective memory: especially the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the subsequent tragic events that befell the family.

Originating from humble Irish roots, the Kennedy family's meteoric rise in the United States is a testament to ambition, determination and the allure of the American Dream. The patriarch, Patrick Joseph Kennedy, laid the foundation in the late 19th century by emigrating from Ireland to Boston, progressing into business and politics. His lineage, enriched by Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.’s ventures in film and banking and marriage to Rose Fitzgerald — the daughter of Boston’s mayor — thrust the family into the American political and social elite. John F. Kennedy's charismatic tenure as the 35th President catapulted them to international renown, but the prominence of JFK and his brothers, Robert and Ted was frequently interrupted by heartbreaks and scandals, including RFK's own assassination.

Warhol, ever the observer of cultural undercurrents, plunged deep into this paradox. He presented the Kennedys as the victims and subjects of America’s relentless attention, where public life was both a glittering spectacle and a target. Warhol’s exploration of the Kennedy mystique encapsulated the very essence of a nation’s infatuation and grief, and how, through his lens, the story of the Kennedys became a poignant commentary on the American experience itself.

Glamour and Grief: Contrasting Themes in Warhol’s Depictions of the Kennedys

Throughout the history of art, Warhol reigns supreme in his ability to seize the pulse of popular culture and distil it onto canvas. When it came to the Kennedys, Warhol's work presented a kaleidoscope of emotions that aptly represented the duality of their lives, oscillating between glamour and grief.

During the 1960s, the Kennedys' lifestyle of grandeur and spectacle endlessly echoed in the media, and Warhol was enchanted by this shimmering façade. Just then reaching his maturity as an artist, the use of vibrant colours and replicated patterns in his art mirrored the repetitive and inescapable coverage of the Kennedys in media and popular culture. He depicts them glamorously, as national icons. Yet, beneath the sheen, Warhol also captured the shadows that trailed the dynasty. By focusing on events or subjects associated with the family's personal tragedies, Warhol showcased how, behind the radiant smiles and resplendent gatherings, lay tragedies that were deeply personal to the Kennedys and emblematic of broader American narratives.

This interplay of light and shadow in Warhol’s work, both physically and thematically, brings forth the Kennedys in all their complexity. Just as the family represented the pinnacle of American aspiration, their trials and tribulations stood as poignant reminders of the fragility of life and the transient nature of fame.

"Repetition implies commodification: Jackie no longer has control over her own image… Repetition implies obsession: the Jackie photos are cropped—narrowing the focus onto Jackie alone, myopically isolating her from context… A narrative emerges, and it is not the story of Jackie’s life or the growth of Jackie’s soul—but the narrative of the image and of our relation to the image."
Wayne Koestenbaum, Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon, 1995

Jackie series

Warhol's Jackie series is one of his most poignant collections, underscoring the artist's capacity to merge the realms of pop culture with profound human emotion. Created in the immediate aftermath of President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, the series captures First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at various moments—both before and after the tragic event.

The source images for the works were culled from popular newspapers and magazines, marking the first time the artist worked this way. Warhol chose moments that encapsulated Jackie's elegance, resilience, and profound grief: from her poised appearances as First Lady to the heart-wrenching moments of her at her husband's funeral. This range evoked the nation's collective sorrow and the abrupt shift from the glamour of the Camelot era to the raw emotion of a country in mourning.

Central to Warhol's approach in this series is his signature style of repetition. By repeating and singularly focusing on Jackie's image, he emphasises the media's ceaseless coverage and America's fixation on the First Lady during this period, and comments on the nature of fame and public tragedy. The images of Jackie, especially in her moments of grief, drive home the intensity of the public's gaze at a time of personal sorrow. This repetitive portrayal, combined with the variations in colour and detail, turns each image into a visual echo of the last, mirroring the way such moments reverberate in the collective memory. Between May and November of 1964, Warhol created over 300 Jackie paintings.

The Jackie series stands out in Warhol's oeuvre for its emotional depth. While the artist is often associated with celebrating the superficial side of pop culture, here he delves into a more introspective space. Jackie's visage becomes a canvas for her personal pain and a nation's shared trauma. Through Warhol's lens, she is an icon of grace under pressure and a symbol of America's lost innocence.

"As we walked through the galleries every person recognised Jackie. They didn’t come too close. They stopped for a minute, looked, and whispered. You could hear her name in the air: ‘Jackie. Jackie.’ It’s a very strange feeling. There is so much awe and respect for her. Being with her is like walking with a saint."
Andy Warhol on Jacqueline Kennedy
"Well, let's get to work."
Warhol's reaction to the JFK assassination on November 22, 1963.

Flash-November 22 series

Warhol’s Flash-November 22 series is a compelling exploration of the immediate media coverage and public reactions to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Produced in 1968, this series delves into the emotional and societal aftermath of the event, reflecting Warhol's fascination with the interplay between death, media, celebrity and tragedy.

Originally printed as a book, the Flash-November 22 series consists of screenprints paired with texts drawing directly from mass media sources that covered the assassination and its aftermath. The series encapsulates a range of reactions, from the stunned expressions of onlookers to official press photographs. The very name "Flash" suggests the suddenness of the event and its immediate, jolting impact on the nation, underscored by the rapid dissemination of news in an era predating the digital age.

Key to understanding the series is Warhol's use of bright colours, which juxtaposed with such grave content creates a tension that is hard to ignore. It further accentuates the media's role in sensationalising and commodifying real-life tragedies. The repetition of images speaks to the incessant nature of media coverage and the embedding of such images in the public consciousness. This technique also suggests the relentless replay of the event in the minds of Americans, the shockwaves of which were felt long after the bullets were fired.

Furthermore, the inclusion of excerpts from news reports and official statements brings a documentary aspect to the work. It grounds the emotional visual content with factual narrative, blurring the lines between art, journalism and historical record.

In the Flash-November 22 series, Warhol does more than just represent a historical moment. Rather, he interrogates the mechanisms of media representation itself, questioning how events are portrayed, consumed and remembered by societies; and how tragedy, when filtered through the lens of mass media, can become both spectacle and icon. Through this series, Warhol presents a meditative reflection on the transformative power of media in shaping collective memory and emotional responses to national events.

"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. What bothered me was the way television and radio were programming everyone to feel so sad. It seemed no matter how hard you tried, you couldn't get away from the thing."
Warhol, on the media coverage following the assination of JFK.

Depictions of Edward Kennedy

In 1980, Warhol created some portraits of Edward "Ted" Kennedy in order to raise funds for the latter's Presidential campaign. This small edition was created only for donors to Kennedy’s bid for the Democratic nomination, which he failed to secure. Nevertheless, Kennedy had a successful career in politics, serving as senator for almost 47 years until his death. That is not to say that Ted was immune to scandal: the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969 was a defining moment in his life. A car he was driving went off a bridge, leading to the death of passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. The event, and Kennedy's actions immediately following the accident, became a major point of controversy, casting a shadow over his political ambitions and personal legacy.

The original image for the artwork was sourced from a polaroid taken by Warhol himself, and shows the politician posing confidently in a suit and tie. Looking straight at the viewer, Kennedy is rendered in black and white, but Warhol adds colourful gestural lines to delineate his facial features and hair.

The Lasting Impact: Warhol’s Legacy in Chronicling American Icons

With his ability to blend pop art aesthetics with piercing societal commentary, Warhol is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. His fascination with celebrity culture led him to capture figures like Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys, whose commodification in the media is explored through techniques like repetition and vibrant colour variations.

The Kennedys, under Warhol's lens, epitomised the complexities of public life, showcasing moments of vulnerability amidst their immaculate status. His portraits, while capturing specific moments in history, also mirrored broader societal fascinations and anxieties. In the age of viral content and influencer culture, Warhol's exploration of fame and representation seems prescient, making his work evergreen in its relevance. Through his art, he celebrated icons, yet critically dissected the very fabric of celebrity, leaving a legacy that continues to resonate in our contemporary era.

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