Warhol and 32 Campbell Soup Cans

by Franklin Hill Perrell

It is fairly certain these are hand painted based on the media, described as graphite (pencil), casein, and acrylic – meaning drawn first in outline, filled in by brush with paint, but a decorative border at the bottom of the can appears to be rubbered stamped. This is the fleur- de-lis motif which was produced by a stamp pad, and for this common design, a configuration that would have been commercially available. From his prior practice as a commercial artist, Warhol likely used an opaque projector to enlarge a source image, either from a photograph or direct drawing. Each canvas is the same size and composition, directly frontal, crisp and simplified, and virtually filling the space. There is no painterly gesture, shadow, or moving tone to suggest illusion. Paint is applied evenly without modulation, a natural feature for acrylic.

Warhol initiated his latter habit of serial repetition here on a grand scale, by differentiating all 32 varieties from Tomato to Beef Barley. He aligns himself with a brand here that is already an American icon, and the design – dating from before 1900 though modified over the years, was demonstrably a great example of graphic design.

These colors were identified as particularly striking by an early Campbell company corporation director who saw their appeal from watching a Yale-Cornell football game – these are the Cornell colors. The cursive script for “Campbells” was originally meant to evoke handwritten recipes which would imply “home-made” to turn-of-the-century housewives. The gold seal derives from the award that Campbells Soup won at the 1900 Paris World Fair and the fleur-de-lis motif, also in gold, comprising a border at the base of the label, further reinforces this French seal of approval. The condensed soup was a radical labor-saving device, a mass-marketed consumer product, which became an American brand whose universality is indisputable. It is in the same spirit that Warhol produced his Coca-Cola bottles and Brillo boxes.

These are separate canvases, each 16 x 20 inches, conceived initially as independent works priced at $100 each. Only one work was sold. Dealer Irving Blum (see photo above) bought it back and canceled the potential sales of three more. He negotiated a price of $1000 and then thereafter the installation has been regarded as a single work. The Daily News reported in their 1987 obituary of Warhol, that the price was originally $60,000. This is very unlikely. When acquired in the 1990’s by the Museum of Modern Art, the work was reportedly valued at $15 million. Today, it would be worth much more.

It has been pointed out in the splendid Warhol 2009 biography, Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol by Tony Scherman and David Dalton and published by Harper Collins, that in establishing his Pop idiom, Warhol essentially turned his back on the elite styling of his advertising work and returned to his blue-collar roots.

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