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Rivera, Diego: 1886-1957: Artist

Diego Rivera: 1886-1957: Artist

One of the most charismatic, controversial, and creative artists to emerge from the twentieth century, Mexican artist Diego Rivera revived the mural art form and rekindled interest in the folk art of Mexico. Much of the controversy surrounding Diego grew out of his politics. A self-avowed Communist, he nonetheless had no qualms about growing rich off of capitalist clients.

Rivera's personal life was as colorful as his murals. Physically he was imposing, standing over six foot tall and weighing more than 300 pounds most of his adult life. He was married four timestwice to artist Frida Kahloand incapable of being faithful. He was opinionated, passionate, and given to weaving his past into fantastical tales of adventure and daring. However, "over and above his fabrications, his nonstop womanizing, his grotesque appearance, his eccentricities, his occasionally outrageous behavior, he was a thoroughly dedicated painter of great skill and phenomenal energy," a journalist who had befriended Rivera wrote in the Smithsonian.

Began Drawing as a Toddler

Diego María Rivera and his twin brother Carlos María were born on December 8, 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico. The birth was physically traumatic for the twins' mother, María del Pilar Barrientos, and she lapsed into a coma and was mistakenly pronounced dead. Fortunately a maid noticed her breathing and María avoided the coffin long enough to recover. Carlos's fate was not so favorable and he died at fourteen months, leaving Rivera an only child. Rivera's parents had met while working as schoolteachers together. His father, Diego Rivera Acosta, also held interests in a silver mine, served as a government official, and was the editor of a liberal paper, El Democrata, that called for social reform to help the working poor. This commitment to the plight of the working classes would influence Rivera the rest of his life.

Rivera began drawing almost as soon as he could grip a pencil and is quoted in Bertram Wolfe's The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera as saying, "The earliest memory I have is that I was drawing." He covered the walls and furniture with his work, prompting his father to give him a room of his own covered with blackboard. There the young Rivera spent hours creating worlds on his walls, a precursor of the muralist he would become.

At a Glance . . .

Born on December 8, 1886, in Guanajuato, Mexico; son of María del Pilar Barrientos and Diego Rivera Acosta; died on November 24, 1957, in Mexico City, Mexico; married, common law, Angelina Beloff; married Guadalupe Marin, 1922, divorced 1927; married Frida Kahlo, 1929, divorced 1939, remarried 1940; married Emma Hurtado, 1955; children: (with Beloff) Diego Jr. (died 1918); (with Marevna Vorobyov-Stebelska) Marika; (with Marin) Lupe and Ruth. Education: San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, Mexico City, 1896-1906. Politics: Communist.

Career: Artist, muralist. First one-man exhibition, Berthe Weill Gallery, Paris, 1914; under contract, Galerie L'Effort Moderne, Paris, 1917-21; one-man retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1931; numerous mural commissions throughout Mexico and the United States, 1922-53; director, San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, Mexico City, 1929; portraitist, throughout his career completed commissions for private and public patrons; illustrator, Canto General by Pablo Neruda, 1950.

Memberships: Joins Mexican Communist Party,1922-25, 1926-29, readmitted 1954; founding member, Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors, 1922; founding member, National Institute of Fine Arts' Commission for Mural Painting, Mexico, 1947.

In 1891 the Riveras had a daughter, María, and two years later the family moved to Mexico City. There Rivera fell ill with scarlet fever and typhoid. During his convalescence a great-aunt taught him to read and write. He began to devour his father's books and by eight years old asked to attend school. His mother insisted on Catholic school and off Rivera went, only to be kicked out of catechism studies for expressing sacrilegious doubt about the virgin birth of Jesus. In 1896 at the age of eleven, Rivera began to attend night classes at the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts. For two years he attended elementary school during the day and art school in the evening. In 1898 he transferred to San Carlos full time.

In 1906 Rivera finished his formal training and showed 26 of his works at the final student exhibit. His talent caught the attention of the governor of Veracruz who arranged for Rivera to study art in Europe. As Rivera was preparing to leave, a textile workers' strike broke out. The government opened fire on the unarmed workers, killing hundreds. Though no evidence exists showing Rivera's involvement in this uprising, years later he spun the incident into his own history telling of how he joined the workers, was injured by a saber, and was arrested.

Arrived in Europe as a Young Man

Upon arriving at the Madrid studio of Spanish painter Eduardo Chicharro, Rivera recalled in his autobiography My Art, My Life, "I was a dynamo of energy. As soon as I located Chicharro's studio I set up my easel and started to paint. For days on end I painted from early dawn till past midnight." Though he didn't produce any work of merit during his years in Spain, he did begin to master technique. In 1909 Rivera moved to Paris. There he began a relationship with Angelina Beloff, a Russian painter six years his senior. Though they would stay together for twelve years, Beloff told Wolfe, "His painting was all he ever lived for, and though he loved me for a few years and then other women, his painting was all he ever truly and deeply loved."

At the invitation of Governor Dehesa, Rivera returned to Mexico to take part in the 1910 centennial celebrations of Mexico's independence. He showed forty works at his alma mater San Carlos and the wife of Mexico's President Porfirio Diaz bought six of them. During the midst of this artistic success, a movement to overthrow Diaz began and peasant bands of insurgents rose throughout Mexico led by men such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Though the only link between Rivera and the uprising was timing, Rivera later told friends and biographers that he had ridden with Zapata's militants for five months.

By 1911 Rivera was back in Paris living with Beloff in the bohemian section of Paris called Montparnasse. He was surrounded by artists and philosophers of the day including Piet Mondrian, Amadeo Modigliani, and Pablo Picasso. There Rivera embraced Cubism. "Everything about the movement fascinated and intrigued me. It was a revolutionary movement, questioning everything that had been said and done in art," Rivera was quoted in Patrick Marnham's, Dreaming With His Eyes Open. After six years in Europe, his foray into Cubism garnered Rivera his first financial success, selling many works at his first one-man show and acquiring a dealer.

When World War I broke out Rivera was in Spain. Returning to Paris in 1915, he found the art community in ruins. The galleries were shuttered and there was no longer a market for art. He and Beloff lived off of government subsidies and the assistance of friends. It was in these dire straits in 1916 that Beloff bore Rivera a son, Diego Jr. The child died fourteen months later. During Beloff's pregnancy, Rivera had begun an affair with another Russian painter, Marevna Vorobyov-Stebelska, who in 1919 also bore Rivera a child. During this same period his art was gaining prominence and he participated in a Cubist retrospective in New York. However, his time as a Cubist was coming to an end. He had a fist fight with a prominent art critic and was a central figure in high profile arguments regarding the nature of the movement. Finally in 1917, he abandoned the movement after seeing a pushcart laden with ripe fruit. "Look at those marvels, and we make such trivia and nonsense," Marnham quoted Rivera as telling Beloff.

In 1920 Rivera was awarded a stipend from the Mexican government to study in Italy. There he discovered the art form that would become synonymous with his namewall frescoes. A difficult medium, fresco requires the application of paint directly onto wet plaster. An artist working in fresco must paint quickly and be sure of his technique and ability. Rivera would prove to be a master.

Returned to Mexico, Became a Muralist

Upon returning to Mexico in 1921, Rivera was invited by the Minister of Education to participate in the new government's cultural plan to bring art to the people by decorating public spaces. Rivera began his first mural at National Preparatory School in Mexico City. Though not his best work, the resultant mural presaged Rivera's movement towards his own unique vision. An article in Los Angeles Magazine summed up this conversion. "Suddenly, in work done after his return to Mexico in 1921, he was Diego. The draftsmanship became bolder and more confident. His palette was brighter, full of reds and earth browns and the azure of the Mexican sky. And he found his essential subject matter in the handsome, blocky faces of the Indians of Mexico. It was as if he had spent more than a decade trying on other peoples clothes and speaking other people's languages. At last he had come home."

1922 was a busy year for Rivera. In June he married Guadalupe Marin, with whom he would have two daughters. He began to solidify his political beliefs, joining the Mexican Communist Party and co-founding the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors. He also began a massive undertaking at the Ministry of Education. Rivera was to paint nearly 17,000 square feet. With a team of other muralists, he vigorously began the project. Despite his Communist ideals Rivera became a tyrant during the project, subverting and even destroying the work of his colleagues. In 1924 political unrest caused Rivera's benefactor, the Minister of Education to resign. Though conservative groups called for the cessation of the mural projects, Rivera managed to obtain the new Minister's favor and he remained the only muralist employed by the government. The project was finally completed in 1928. It is a vividly colorful example of Rivera's genius, rife with his favorite imagerypre-Hispanic civilization, Indian life, and peasants at work and at play.

Capitalist Art and Communist Politics

Over the next several years Rivera received numerous government commissions and his reputation as an acclaimed muralist grew. However, the Communist Party felt his work for the government was in contradiction to their political beliefs and he was expelled from the party in 1929. Conversely, the public often decried his suitability as a government painter because of his Communist background. Despite these controversies Rivera persevered, even becoming famous because of them. Throughout the 1920s he completed prominent public murals including those at the Agricultural College at Chapingo and the National Palace. In 1927, after five stormy years of marriage, Rivera and Marin separated. Two years later he married Frida Kahlo, a dedicated Communist and a talented painter nearly twenty years his junior. She would become not only his greatest love, but also a well-respected artist in her own right.

As a government employee, Rivera made very little money. To supplement his income he sold paintings to wealthy North Americans. Soon he began accepting mural commissions north of the border. In 1931 he completed two major murals in San Francisco. One, "Allegory or California" painted for the Pacific Stock Exchange, invoked the ire of the Communist press who derided Rivera for being an agent of North American Imperialism. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, controversy raged because a card-carrying Communist foreigner was chosen over a home-grown American artist to create a work celebrating capitalist glory. The furor kept Rivera's name in the papers but did not stop his work.

Success and Defeat North of the Border

Rivera began to experience international fame in the 1930s beginning with a one-man retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in the fall of 1931. It was a spectacular success drawing nearly 57,000 spectators and cementing Rivera's role as one of the twentieth century's greatest living artists. He was soon offered a commission to paint the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Funded by Edsel Ford, Rivera began painting on July 25, 1932 and the finished work was unveiled in March of the following year. According to Smithsonian, "Engineers inspecting [the murals] expressed amazement at the sophisticated selection of key elements and the fidelity of reproduction. Non-mechanical viewers were surprised at the way in which Rivera could make turbines, conveyor belts and stamping machines look sensual." Now considered unrivaled masterpieces, at the time of their completion the frescoes caused conservative groups to immediately call for the murals' dismantling, calling them "unpatriotic," "pornographic," and "Communistic." Meanwhile, union workers volunteered to protect the murals which accurately depicted the inner workings of an auto plant and celebrated the laborers. In the end, Edsel Ford defended the work, ensuring its safety and ending the controversy.

While still working in Detroit, Rivera was hired to paint a mural in the new RCA Building at the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. The theme was "Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future." Other than the title, Rivera expected to have full artistic control. One of the earliest sections completed showed Soviet workers at a May Day celebration in Moscow. This prompted one journalist to write a critical review of the work in the entitled "Rivera Paints Scenes of Communist Activity and John D. Jr. Foots Bill." The Rockefellers became uneasy. Unease turned to anger a month later when a Rivera included a portrait of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. The Rockefellers asked Rivera to remove the figure. When Rivera offered instead to include Abraham Lincoln as a balance to the Soviet leader, correspondence ended. Rivera was asked to stop painting. The media went wild with the story debating issues of censorship and patriotism. Crowds of Rivera supporters and detractors descended on the site daily. Finally Rivera was dismissed. He soon lost other mural commissions in the United States and returned defeated to Mexico in 1934. That February, under cover of night, workers wielding axes were dispatched to destroy the fresco.

Divorced, Remarried, Finally Lost Frida Kahlo

Back in Mexico, Rivera turned increasingly to easel painting though he did complete several unfinished murals at the National Palace and recreated the Rockefeller mural at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. During the 1930s and 1940s, his and Kahlo's relationship endured many difficulties and mutual infidelities. In 1939 the couple separated, yet re-wed the following year. They remained politically active during this time and gave refuge to exiled Soviet activist Leon Trotsky. In 1941 Rivera began to build Anahuacalli, an Aztec-style pyramid designed to house his large collection of pre-Hispanic Mexican art.

Rivera continued to receive commissions throughout Mexico during the 1940s and 1950s, including what is considered one his greatest works, "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park," commissioned for the Hotel del Prado in 1947. The work depicted the history of Mexico and featured Rivera as a small boy in the center with Kahlo's hand on his shoulder and his childhood mentor, engraver José Guadalupe Posada, nearby. Meanwhile, Kahlo was increasingly ill and spent most of 1950 in the hospital. One of the couple's last outings together was a 1954 demonstration against the CIA. A few weeks later Kahlo died of a drug overdose widely considered to have been a suicide. Rivera was devastated. "Too late," he was quoted in Marnham's book, "I realized the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida."

In 1955, after a diagnosis of cancer, Rivera married his art dealer Emma Hurtado. His health deteriorated rapidly and on November 24, 1957 he died quietly of heart failure. He had given explicit instructions that upon his death his ashes be mixed with those of Kahlo. Instead the government of Mexico chose to inter his remains in Mexico City's famous Rotunda of Illustrious Men. To Mexico Rivera bequeathed Anahuacalli and his and Kahlo's art studios, all of which are national museums today. However it is his body of work that is his true gift. He not only achieved his goal of bringing art to the people of Mexico, but also brought the art of Mexico to the world. Wrote Wolfe, "His eye and hand taught outsiders and Mexicans alike to see a Mexico which until then escaped their vision." It is a Mexico that continues to inspire today.

Selected works

Ministry of Education, Mexico City, 1923-28.

Agricultural School, Chapingo, Mexico, 1924-27.

Palacio Nacional, History of Mexico, 1928-29.

Pacific Stock Exchange, San Francisco, CA, 1931.

Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI, 1932-33.

Rockefeller Center, New York, NY, 1932-33 (destroyed).

Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City, 1934.

City College, San Francisco, CA, 1940.



Marnham, Patrick, Dreaming with His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera, 1998.

Rivera, Diego with Gladys March, My Art, My Life, 1960.

Wolfe, Bertram D., The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera, 1963.


Los Angeles Magazine, January 1997.

People Weekly, February 12, 1996.

Smithsonian, February 1986.

Candace LaBalle

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