Alan Cueff, the curator of the Grand Palais’s grand show of Warhol portraits, would like dismiss the master’s own explanation for why he made 1000 commissioned portraits at $40,000 per commission in 1970s dollars:
“He used to say, ‘I have to pay the rent; I have to bring home the bacon’,” says the exhibition’s curator, Alain Cueff, adding that he thinks the irreverent and often-flippant pop artist had something more serious in mind.
Let’s back up and think about the financial implications of 1000 works at $40,000 per commission. Or, to be conservative, let’s assume we’re talking about 1000 canvases and the most common commission was a diptych: “Warhol charged $25,000 for the first painting and $15,000 for every additional canvas. Most subjects bought diptychs.”
That’s still $20 million in revenue for the Factory. No wonder Warhol described the pitch Fred Hughes used to obtain the commissions as “popping the question.”
In this AP story, which appears in the New Zealand Herald, we get a further reminder that the commissions were hardly the product of a larger “portrait of society” art project but a simple transaction between lovers or aging movie stars:
A 1974 portrait of Brigitte Bardot was commissioned by her husband of three years, German playboy Gunther Sachs, who also had himself painted. “I always thought of it as a gesture of gentlemanliness and panache, giving them to her after their separation,” Cueff says. “But in fact, he didn’t give them to her at all. He kept them.”
In 1985, movie star Lana Turner commissioned a pair of portraits in a bid to jump-start her lagging career. The exhibition catalogue quotes Warhol as complaining about the difficulty of “transforming a 60-year-old woman into a 25-year-old girl”.
Court Painter to the Rich and Famous (New Zealand Herald)