When Marilyn Monroe Turned Her Hand to Painting

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A collection of original drawings and watercolours by the 1950s starlet are being auctioned today in Los Angeles, and they reveal more about her than one might expect

Everybody knows everything about Marilyn Monroe. Between the classic films, the show-all photo shoots, her turn at JFK’s birthday celebrations in the original (and best) “naked” dress, the hagiographies and the hatchet jobs, there isn’t a corner of her life that hasn’t been exposed to interrogation.

Since her death in 1962, Monroe has been picked apart and reconstructed as the Marilyn of Andy Warhol – a multiplicity of hyper-coloured purring sensuality and peroxide hair. For better or worse it has defined her. Yes, we know Monroe – she’s the pneumatic bimbo, the object of desire, the one the president wanted, the one Arthur Miller divorced, the sad one, the drunk one, the neurotic one, the one who slept in just Chanel No.5. By dying young, she became symbolic, and as a symbol, she remains enigmatic. Despite knowing everything, people still clamour to know more.

Is there more to know? This year, which would have been her 90th, Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles is staging an extraordinary sale of the actress’s clothes and possessions. Key items include the glittering dress she wore to serenade the President, and costumes from Some Like It Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Seven Year Itch. Alongside these million dollar pieces lie rather more quotidian things – taxi receipts, letters, photographs, a filled out chequebook from 1962, tax documents, a recipe for stuffing, eight Philip Morris cigarettes, a used Revlon lipstick, and, the standout, a series of never before seen drawings in Conté crayon and paint.

The pictures are rough sketches of figures, animals and objects with titles like Lover Watching His Love Sleep and Jumping into the Frying Pan From the Fire. They depict scenes of lovemaking and morning afters, old men on benches and women in fishnet stockings. Accompanying documents imply that they were made as part of a correspondence art course through the Famous Artists Schools in Westport, Connecticut that she started in the late 1950s. They represent the other side of Monroe – the poet, the self-improver, the woman with a library of more than 400 books ranging across art history, philosophy and the sciences.

Last night, that classic piece of inconography – the sheer rhinestone gown she wore for JFK – sold for $4.8m, breaking the auction record for a dress. The drawings, which go under the hammer today with estimates ranging from $1.5-15,000, are unlikely to break any records – indeed, they are not great pieces of art. But their existence breathes life into the two dimensional character formed by decades of cultural obsession. Through these flawed yet heartfelt drawings, Monroe is taken down from the pantheon of legend and, just for a moment, made human once more.

The auction is taking place November 17, 18 and 19, 2016 at Julien's Auctions, LA.