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Andy Warhol created his Beethoven portfolio in 1987, depicting one of the most celebrated composers of all time, shortly before the artist’s death in 1987. They offer a vivid insight into Warhol’s method—which involved layering prints from multiple screens—featuring overlayed sheet music, and four different colourways.

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Meaning & Analysis

One of the most celebrated composers of all time, it is perhaps unsurprising that Warhol decided to depict Ludvig Van Beethoven in this print series. It is no surprise, therefore, that Warhol chose to portray Ludwig van Beethoven, who has been widely regarded as one of the most celebrated composers of all time. Here, Warhol depicts Beethoven in a portfolio of four screen prints, created shortly before the artist’s death in 1987. Whilst sympathetic with his commitment to the portrayal of fame, this series is also unique in its departure from his more frequent depiction of movie stars and recognisable images from consumer culture.

Beethoven is an example of Warhol’s acclaimed screen print technique that was first developed in the 1960s. Throughout his career, Warhol made nearly 800 printed images on paper, in addition to hundreds of trial proofs and unique variants of each of his portfolios. His work contributed significantly to what has been described as the ‘print boom’ of the 1960s, and Warhol later went on to set up his print publishing company Factory Additions, which continued to issue portfolios of his most recognisable themes.

The source image of Warhol’s Beethoven is the 1820 portrait of the composer by Joseph Karl Stieler, widely regarded as one of the most iconic images of Beethoven. In Stieler’s original oil on canvas, Beethoven is writing a composition whilst staring intensely to the viewer. Warhol pushes Stieler’s rendition of the composer a step further, exploring the range of graphic possibilities within one image by using a broad colour spectrum in every repetition.

10 Facts About Andy Warhol's Beethoven

Beethoven (F. & S. II.391) by Andy Warhol

Beethoven (F. & S. II.391) © Andy Warhol 1987

1. Warhol’s Beethoven series belongs to an old tradition of works exploring a link between genius and madness.

The lone genius grappling with demons of his creative soul has long been a prominent motif in Western culture. Wielding a pen and empty music sheets in his hands, Beethoven in Warhol’s series is positioned vividly in relation to his craft as each of the four prints captures him in the process of composing. The famous German composer either stares intensely at an indefinite point before him or his eyes are covered with scribbles, signalling his inner torment as well as the intensity of his creative practice.

Skull (F. & S. II.157) by Andy Warhol

Skull (F. & S. II.157) © Andy Warhol 1976

2. The series is permeated by the awareness of death.

The series gives insight into Warhol’s reckoning with his mortality as an artist. Warhol’s late pieces are imbued with his awareness of death; the figure of the composer who produced some of his most influential compositions at a stage of complete deafness seemed particularly relevant to him in this context.

Liz by Andy Warhol

Liz © Andy Warhol 1964

3. The series is a rare example of Warhol’s abandonment of contemporaneity for the past.

In the Beethoven series, Warhol moved away from his exploration of contemporary celebrity life as associated with his most famous works, including Marilyn Diptych (1962), Liz (1964) or Debbie Harry (1980).

Painting of Ludwig Van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler

Painting of Ludwig Van Beethoven © Joseph Karl Stieler 1820 © Wikimedia Commons