The Anatomy of a Warhol Portrait: A Glossary of Icons

Left: Andy Warhol, “The American Indian (Russell Means),” 1976. Sold for $710,000 via Sotheby's (May 2017); Right: Andy Warhol, “Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom,” from Reigning Queens, 1985. Sold for $93,750 via Phillips (October 2016).

Though he died over thirty years ago, Andy Warhol’s name is still synonymous with Pop art, a perennial favorite for museum-goers, collectors, and curators alike. Andy Warhol artwork is as relevant today as it was during his active years, which a new monographic show at the Whitney Museum in New York aims to demonstrate. Opening in November 2018, Andy Warhol— From A to B and Back Again will display among its 350 objects 75 Warhol portraits recontextualized for the age of Instagram.

Andy Warhol Paintings

During his lifetime, Warhol painted commissioned portraits from Polaroids or photographs, but he was also well known for appropriating images of iconic faces from newspapers publicity stills, and other media. These source images were then turned into large-scale silkscreen prints on canvas. The artist was quoted as saying, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” His portraits reflect this belief, as they often serve to elevate their subjects into the model of superstardom with which Warhol was obsessed. Warhol portraits often deal with darker issues as well; in particular death and legacy.

In honor of what would be the artist’s 90th birthday, take a deep dive into Andy Warhol’s most significant silkscreen portrait subjects and the hallmarks for which they’re known today. Among his favorites? Musicians, movie stars, other artists, and, of course, himself. See the faces immortalized on his canvases, organized both by type of subject and chronologically, in our Warhol portrait glossary.

Andy Warhol Portraits

The volume of work Andy Warhol produced throughout his career as an artist is huge: he generated about 10,000 works of art from 1961 until his death in 1987. Because of the number of works in existence, there are different types of Warhol collectors.

Some collectors focus on works from a significant or limited series from the artist’s career, such as Warhol’s “disaster paintings,” oxidation paintings, or early works that are more rare and relevant to the canon of art history. Others who are interested in a particular portrait subject can find a multitude of options that typify Warhol’s style.

Below, explore the key components of Warhol’s most iconic portraits.

andy warhol portraits


Warhol often created single canvases or diptychs with multiple portraits. Likewise, he went back to his favorite portrait subjects year after year. This repetition is indicative of his examination of the commodification of identity, or the idea that with fame, celebrities cease to be individuals and are viewed merely as products for consumption by the mass media. The use of a grid format also assists in his desire to become more machine-like in his process.

Color blocking

Flat blocks of color are perhaps the most iconic part of Warhol’s portraits. Warhol wanted the automation and sharpness that came with screen printing, but kept imperfections as they possessed an immediacy similar to the tabloid photos he often referenced.


In all of Warhol’s portraits, slight inconsistencies appear across different portraits in the same series. These imperfections are in part a result of the screen printing process employed, but also allude to the major themes in Warhol’s work: the dichotomies of public image and private life, beauty and tragedy, ascent and descent.

Source image

Typically, Warhol either photographed his subjects himself or took images from newspapers, old publicity stills, or elsewhere. Often when he appropriated images he used photographs from years past, showcasing the subject at the beginning or peak of their celebrity.

A Glossary of Andy Warhol’s Subjects


From early in his childhood, Andy Warhol was fascinated with the idea of celebrity. During his youth, he assembled scrapbooks of headshots and fan photos from movie stars. In the 1960s, Warhol’s Factory became a hot spot for artists and celebrities. Warhol also made films at the Factory as a way to further weave his work in with the fabric of Hollywood. In a sense, all of Warhol’s portraits can be considered celebrity portraits; however, he started with and went back to film stars, athletes, and musicians time and again. 

Marilyn Monroe

Actress Marilyn Monroe was Warhol’s first silkscreen subject. He continued to work from production stills and photographs of the silver screen bombshell for decades, resulting in dozens of series of Marilyn paintings. For many, the Monroe they conjure in their heads is Warhol’s Monroe.

Elvis Presley

While Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn mainly depicted her from the shoulders up, the artist produced several life-size portraits of Elvis Presley starting in the early 1960s. Many feature overlapping images of the rock-and-roll singer and actor. Given Warhol’s interest in filmmaking, this aspect of the portraits may reference the speed and movement of a film strip. Roman collector Annibale Berlingieri sold his 12-foot version entitled Eight Elvises in 2008 for over $100 million in a transaction brokered by a French art consultant, making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold.

Jackie Kennedy

Warhol began to produce paintings of Jackie Kennedy in 1964, the year after the assassination of her husband President John F. Kennedy. He based the paintings on media images of Jackie from the day of her husband’s death, both before and after the event. Warhol eventually made over 300 portraits of the First Lady, which became some of the most iconic images in his oeuvre.

Elizabeth Taylor

According to art critic Jerry Saltz, “Andy loved women and the power of the feminine, and the women he loved most and best were Marilyn, Jackie and Liz.” Warhol muse Elizabeth Taylor was an American actress and AIDS activist. The image used for this series of paintings from 1964 was a publicity image from Taylor’s 1960 film Butterfield 8, in which she starred with then-husband Eddie Fisher.

Judy Garland

Judy Garland began appearing as a Warhol portrait subject in the 1970s, nearly a decade after her death. Warhol was fascinated with Garland, who was one of the celebrities he wrote fan letters to as a child. This paintings mirrors an advertising campaign Garland participated in, the original photos for which were taken by Richard Avedon.

Muhammad Ali

Warhol’s portrait of Muhammad Ali is part of 1977’s The Complete Athletes Series. Warhol saw the commercialization of sports as a jumping off point for athletes to become pop culture icons in their own right, noting “the sports stars of today are the movie stars of yesterday.” In the series, Ali was featured alongside nine other athletes, including Dorothy Hamill and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Leaders & Trailblazers

Warhol began to venture out in terms of subject matter in the 1970s and 1980s. He was commissioned by gallerists to do series of different types of people, including political and community leaders from all walks of life. Though some of these people were less well-known to the public, Warhol continued to analyze them as they related to his typical themes: life, death, fame and public perception.

Wilhelmina Ross

Whereas Warhol’s famous portraits from the 1960s reflect the ideal of classical beauty in America, his work in the 1970s grapples with issues of identity faced by the LGBTQ community. Following the Stonewall Riots in 1969, Warhol was commissioned by an Italian art dealer to paint 105 portraits of drag queens in 4 sizes. Warhol eventually made more than double the number of portraits requested, working with 14 models and taking over 500 Polaroids to prepare. Wilhelmina Ross is featured in 73 of the portraits, more than any other model.

Mao Zedong

In 1972, Warhol renewed his focus on painting after a suggestion that he paint the most significant icon of the 20th century. Warhol, having seen Chairman Mao described in Life magazine as the most famous person in the world following Richard Nixon’s trip to China that same year, selected the Chinese leader as that figure. Between 1972 and 1973, Warhol created 199 Mao paintings. According to the Warhol Museum, “Warhol saw the pervasiveness of Mao’s image in China as akin to Western advertising strategies.”

Russell Means

Andy Warhol’s The American Indian series consisted of 38 paintings and 23 drawings of Russell Means conceived between August 1976 and early 1977. Means was an Oglala Lokata Indian from South Dakota who became an advocate for the rights of Native Americans. Warhol’s choice of subject here may have resulted in part from the prevalence of the subject matter in Hollywood and in part due to his interest in deconstructing socio-political figures and reconfiguring them as glamorized pop culture icons in their own right.

Gertrude Stein

When Warhol debuted his series of “Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century” in 1980, critics reviled the portraits as superficial verging on offensive; however, even then audiences were drawn to the images of accomplished men and women. Gertrude Stein, a noted writer and art patron of the early 20th century, was featured alongside Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, Albert Einstein, and the Marx brothers.

Queen Elizabeth

Warhol created this print of Queen Elizabeth II as part of his Reigning Queens 1985 portfolio, which included images of the four female monarchs who were ruling at that time: Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and Queen Ntombi Twala of Swaziland. A set of the Queen Elizabeth prints entered the Royal Collection in 2012 in honor of her Diamond Jubilee.

Vladimir Lenin

Like his Mao portraits, Warhol conceived his series of Bolshevik Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin as an ironic reversal of the cult-like following the controversial leader invoked in his peers, even after his death in 1924. The Lenin paintings were the last major body of work completed by the artist before his death in 1987.


Though Warhol mainly painted portraits based on the commissions he received or as a means to further explore his interest in the preservation of fame, he also created images of people he admired – in particular other artists.

Man Ray

Dada and surrealist artist Man Ray was a hero of Warhol’s, and the Pop artist collected Man Ray’s photographs and prints early on in his career. Warhol photographed the artist in Paris in 1973 for this series of portraits, which were painted at the Factory.

Yves Saint Laurent

French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent met Warhol in 1968, when he was staying in Paris to film his movie Love. The two developed a close friendship, and in the 1970s, Warhol painted a series of portraits of Saint Laurent. Later, he also painted portraits of the designer’s bulldog.

Joseph Beuys

Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys worked contemporaneously with one another, meeting on several occasions. Though the artists were stylistically very different, they maintained a mutual respect for one another that resulted in Beuys commissioning a series of portraits of himself from Warhol in 1980. The image Warhol used to create this painting was a polaroid from their first encounter at Galerie Denise René/Hans Mayer.

Keith Haring

Street artist Keith Haring is pictured in this double portrait with his partner Juan Dubose. The work was executed in 1983, four years before Warhol’s death from surgery complications and seven before Haring’s of AIDS. To many, the choice of grey tones for the first panel of this diptych portends the coming tragedy of these lives cut short.

Ludwig van Beethoven

This quartet of portraits of German composer Beethoven demonstrates how Warhol developed well-known persons into symbols of celebrity. The image used in these works is an idealized portrait of Beethoven by Karl Stieler that already loomed large in many people’s minds. Warhol superimposed the music to popular favorite Moonlight Sonata overtop the artist’s face, symbolically overwriting the artist’s actual life in favor of his mythical status.

Andy Warhol

Warhol made self-portraits throughout his entire career, starting in 1964. Warhol, who was obsessed with celebrity, became an American icon as he reinvented the way art was created and marketed. As such, it’s natural that he painted himself just like the celebrities he immortalized.

Looking for more? Click here to explore Andy Warhol artwork now on Invaluable. 

Sources | The Warhol Museum | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | The New York Times | Tate wall text for Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Man Ray, and Self-Portrait | MoMA | W Magazine | Musee Yves Saint Laurent | Phaidon | Phillips | Christie’s | The Art Newspaper | Sotheby’s catalogue notes for Judy Garland, Keith Haring and Juan Dubose, The American Indian (Russell Means), Lenin, and Ladies and Gentlemen (Wilhelmina Ross) | Sotheby’s, Andy Warhol and Chairman Mao | Sotheby’s, Andy Warhol and His Process