For Andy Warhol, Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe was the perfect symbol of celebrity, beauty and death. Here are 10 quick facts about his famous Marilyn portraits, one of his first (and most parodied) silkscreen paintings.
1. Warhol made his first Marilyn painting in 1962
The actress died on 5 August 1962 after taking an overdose of sleeping pills. The news of her death inspired Warhol to create his first Marilyn silkscreen paintings later that month. He went on to make at least 23 Marilyn paintings before the end of the year.
2. Marilyn was one of Warhol’s first silkscreens
Warhol started experimenting with silkscreen printing techniques in August 1962, just days before Marilyn’s tragic death. “The rubber-stamp method I’d been using to repeat images suddenly seemed too homemade; I wanted something stronger that gave more of an assembly-line effect,” Warhol recalled in his memoir POPism.
“My first experiments with screens were heads of Troy Donahue and Warren Beatty, and then when Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month, I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face—the first Marilyns.”
3. Warhol’s Marilyn is based on a publicity photo for the film Niagara
In the 1953 thriller film, Marilyn played femme fatale Rose Loomis, an unfaithful wife who schemes a deadly plan against her older husband while they holidayed at Niagara Falls.
The original publicity photo of Marilyn for Niagara is in black and white and shows the actress up to chest height. For his paintings, Warhol cropped the photo to draw more attention to Marilyn’s face. Some of his portraits are in monochrome while others are painted in bright, imagined colours. “As for whether it’s symbolical to paint Monroe in such violent colours: it’s beauty, and she’s beautiful and if something’s beautiful it’s pretty colours, that’s all,” Warhol explained.
4. Marilyn captures Marilyn at the height of her career
While Marilyn was 36 years old when she died, Warhol’s portraits freeze her eternally at the age of 26, the year she became one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. In addition to Niagara, 1953 saw the release of her acclaimed films Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire.
5. Marilyn is a carefully created identity
By repeating her image endlessly in his art, like a Campbell soup can, Warhol turns Marilyn from a real person into a product that can be manufactured and consumed. As the Pop artist once said, “The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.”
6. The iconic portrait has inspired endless parodies
Anonymous street artist Banksy has paid homage to Warhol’s Marilyn with his artwork Kate Moss, which features the English supermodel’s face with Marilyn’s hair. Meanwhile, Mr Brainwash’s Spock Monroe fuses Marilyn with the famous Star Trek character, while contemporary artist Gary Hogben has mashed-up Marilyn and Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a work titled Boris Monroe.
7. The Marilyn paintings reflect Warhol’s favourite theme
The Pop artist’s obsession with celebrity, beauty and death are all channelled into his portraits of Marilyn. A year later, Warhol went on to create his sensationalist Death and Disasters paintings, which repeated horrific images of race riots, electric chairs, suicide victims and car crashes.
“Every time you turned on the radio they said something like ‘4 million are going to die.’ That started it. But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect,” Warhol said of the inspiration behind the works.
8. Warhol returned to creating Marilyns throughout his life
In 1979, nearly two decades after the first Marilyn paintings, Warhol started his Reversal series where he inverted his best-known artworks – turning light areas into dark and shadows into colour. Over the next seven years, Warhol created a new series of Marilyn (Reversal) paintings, in essence making reproductions of his own reproductions.
9. Marilyns are in museums around the world
You can find one of Warhol’s first paintings of the actress, Marilyn Diptych, at the Tate Modern in London. In America, New York’s Museum of Modern Art holds Gold Marilyn Monroe from 1962, while the Cleveland Museum of Art has Marilyn x 100, the largest of the Marilyn paintings. The Leeum Samsung Museum in Seoul has the mesmerising Forty-Five Gold Marilyns, made in 1979 as part of Warhol’s Reversal series.
10. The most expensive Marilyn sold for $41 million (£24.3 million)
White Marilyn was the subject of a 10-minute long bidding battle at Christie’s in New York on 13 May 2014. Estimated it at $12-18 million, the painting went on to achieve more than three times its low estimate.
White Marilyn was one of 12 single portraits of Marilyn that Warhol made in 1962. They were known as the “Flavour Marilyns” because they each had a coloured background. Warhol gave White Marilyn to his gallerist Eleanor Ward as thanks for organising his first solo exhibition.