Why Andy Warhol Was So Obsessed With Campbell's Soup

One need not be a connoisseur of fine art to recognize Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup can paintings. In fact, that was kind of the whole point — Warhol wanted to create art out of something as recognizable as the pantry staple you generally push out of the way when you're on the hunt for more olive oil. To understand why, we have to talk a little more about Warhol himself, and the events that led up to his "soup-er" decision to go from paint cans to painting cans — a decision that catapulted Warhol from general obscurity to pop art prince.

Warhol was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1928, according to The Tate. Before Campbell's cans put him on the pop art map, Warhol was a commercial artist living in New York, selling handdrawn pictures of shoes and illustrating advertisements for fashion magazines (via Smithsonian Magazine). He badly wanted to break into the fine arts scene that was blossoming around him, but as he watched friends and peers find success with paintings influenced by comic books and billboard ads, Warhol felt more jealous than inspired. In fact, it was skipping out on his pal's art show in 1961 that left room for a dinner with art dealer Muriel Latow, the woman who allegedly gave Warhol the idea to paint Campbell's soup cans.

Life imitating art, imitating life

Like everything great about art and popular culture — and popular art culture —there are no simple answers. Accounts of the evening vary, but according to Smithsonian Magazine, Andy Warhol begged his friend Latow for an idea that could rival his friend's pop art pieces, while being different enough to make him stand out. The shrewd Latow insisted that Warhol fork over $50 for her suggestion, and when he did, her response was as simple as tomato soup: paint something everyone recognizes. Pop art was just getting its legs and gaining ground in the early 1960s, as the public seemed to want a change from the abstract and expressionist styles of the previous decade. Vanity Fair says Latow told Warhol he should stick with the basics and appeal to the materialistic culture of the day; then she gave Warhol two ideas for the price of $50, suggesting he paint money or Campbell's soup.

Warhol would later say that he grew up with Campbell's soup. "I used to drink it," he said, according to History. "I used to have the same lunch every day for 20 years." It's unclear how much soup Warhol consumed in the year that he was surrounded by Campbell's cans in order to paint the 32 images he's known for today, but if you thought he got sick of the stuff, you are wrong. According to Vanity Fair, when the editor of Esquire pitched a 1969 cover featuring Warhol drowning in a giant can of Campbell's tomato soup, the artist was "ecstatic." He was even quoted as saying, "I should have just done the Campbell's soups and kept on doing them, because everybody only does one painting anyway." Warhol passed away in 1987, but the shelf life of his Campbell's soup paintings is still going strong.