How Andy Warhol painted a Bechtler family portrait
Lining the walls of a new exhibit at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art is a collection of portraits by Andy Warhol. There’s his famous take on Marilyn Monroe, one of Elvis Presley and perhaps most surprising of all: a series of portraits of the Bechtler family themselves, painted by Warhol in 1973.
How did a family of Swiss art collectors who lived in Zurich years before a museum named for them opened in Charlotte score a series of portraits by Andy Warhol?
Todd Smith knows. He's the executive director of the Bechtler Museum. On a recent tour of the exhibit, Smith explained how the family was connected to the artist through a Swiss art dealer.
“Warhol had a really important dealer in Zurich in the 1970s, and it was through that dealer that the Bechtler family was introduced to Warhol in 1972,” he said.
According to Smith, Warhol painted lots of portraits in the 1970s and 80s not just of celebrities like Monroe and Presley, but also of socialites, art collectors and anyone who could afford his commission.
“Beginning in the early 1970s, Warhol switched his artistic practice and focused quite a bit on portraiture, and it was a way for him to not only explore portraiture as an artistic form, but also to make money to support all of his creative endeavors,” Smith said. “So throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, portraiture was really his main source of income.”
The Bechtlers had a fortune. Warhol had a canvas. The result now hangs on the gallery wall: eight Bechtlers arranged in a grid like the Brady Bunch, but in bright blue, green and apricot.
The family’s relationship with Warhol may have been transactional at first, Smith said -- they met for the first time when Warhol arrived at the family home to photograph the Bechtlers for their portraits. But the Bechtlers remained in contact with Warhol after the commission was finished, Smith said, as they did with many artists they supported.
The portraits themselves are instantly identifiable as Warhol’s work. They were produced with Warhol’s signature mix of photography, silkscreen and paint on canvas, and Warhol added touches of blue over some of the family members’ eyelids — akin to eyeshadow.
Regular museum patrons may have seen the portraits before. They’ve been a part of the museum’s permanent collection since it opened in 2010. The museum was established after Andreas Bechtler, son of Hans and Bessie Bechtler, moved to Charlotte in 1979 to work in one of the family’s manufacturing businesses and, after his parents' death, donated half of his family’s art collection to the City of Charlotte.
Andreas Bechtler is still alive today, though he hasn’t shared much of what it was like to have his portrait painted by one of the most famous pop artists of the 20th century.
“The family is very Swiss, and they’re not prone to sharing a lot of great details about their personal lives,” Smith said. “And so I think the portraits speak for themselves. They really do give you insight into Warhol’s artistic style, his way of expressing individuals, but also the joy that I think the whole family experienced being around artists and being around art throughout their entire lives.”
“Pop to Now: Warhol and His Legacy”runs at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in uptown Charlotte from Sept. 10, 2022 – Jan. 2, 2023. The exhibit also features work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and contemporary artists influenced by Warhol’s and Basquiat’s work.