Born: December 8, 1886
Died: November 25, 1957
Mexico City, Mexico
Diego Rivera was one of Mexico's most famous painters. He rebelled against the traditional school of painting and developed a style that combined historical, social, and political ideas. His great body of work reflects cultural changes taking place in Mexico and around the world during the turbulent twentieth century.
The young artist
Diego Maria Rivera and his twin brother Carlos were born in Guanajuato, Guanajuato State, Mexico, on December 8, 1886. Less than two years later his twin died. Diego's parents were Diego Rivera and Maria Barrientos de Rivera. His father worked as a teacher, an editor for a newspaper, and a health inspector. His mother was a doctor. Diego began drawing when he was only three years old. His father soon built him a studio with canvas-covered walls and art supplies to keep the young artist from drawing on the walls and furniture in the house. As a child, Rivera was interested in trains and machines and was nicknamed "the engineer." The Rivera family moved to Mexico City, Mexico, in 1892.
In 1897 Diego began studying painting at the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City. His instructors included Andrés Ríos Félix Para (1845–1919), Santiago Rebull (1829–1902), and José María Velasco (1840–1912). Para showed Rivera Mexican art that was different from the European art that he was used to. Rebull taught him that a good drawing was the basis of a good painting. Velasco taught Rivera how to produce three-dimensional effects. He was also influenced by the work of José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913), who produced scenes of everyday Mexican life engraved on metal.
In 1902 Rivera was expelled from the academy for leading a student protest when Porfirio Díaz (1830–1915) was reelected president of Mexico. Under Díaz's leadership, those who disagreed with government policies faced harassment, imprisonment, and even death. Many of Mexico's citizens lived in poverty, and there were no laws to protect the rights of workers. After Rivera was expelled, he traveled throughout Mexico painting and drawing.
Art in Europe
Although Rivera continued to work on his art in Mexico, he dreamed of studying in Europe. Finally, Teodora A. Dehesa, the governor of Veracruz, Mexico, who was known for funding artists, heard about Rivera's talent and agreed to pay for his studies in Europe. In 1907 Rivera went to Madrid, Spain, and worked in the studio of Eduardo Chicharro. Then in 1909 he moved to Paris, France. In Paris he was influenced by impressionist painters, particularly Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919). Later he worked in a postimpressionist style inspired by Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Georges Seurat (1859–1891), Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Raoul Dufy (1877–1953), and Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920).
As Rivera continued his travels in Europe, he experimented more with his techniques and styles of painting. The series of works he produced between 1913 and 1917 are cubist (a type of abstract art usually based on shapes or objects rather than pictures or scenes) in style. Some of the pieces have Mexican themes, such as the Guerrillero (1915). By 1918 he was producing pencil sketches of the highest quality, an example of which is his self-portrait. He continued his studies in Europe, traveling throughout Italy learning techniques of fresco (in which paint is applied to wet plaster) and mural painting before returning to Mexico in 1921.
Murals and frescoes
Rivera believed that all people (not just people who could buy art or go to museums) should be able to view the art that he was creating. He began painting large murals on walls in public buildings. Rivera's first mural, the Creation (1922), in the Bolívar Amphitheater at the University of Mexico, was the first important mural of the twentieth century. The mural was painted using the encaustic method (a process where a color mixed with other materials is heated after it is applied). Rivera had a great sense of color and an enormous talent for structuring his works. In his later works he used historical, social, and political themes to show the history and the life of the Mexican people.
Between 1923 and 1926 Rivera created frescoes in the Ministry of Education Building in Mexico City. The frescoes in the Auditorium of the National School of Agriculture in Chapingo (1927) are considered his masterpiece. The oneness of the work and the quality of each of the different parts, particularly the feminine nudes, show off the height of his creative power. The general theme of the frescoes is human biological and social development. The murals in the Palace of Cortés in Cuernavaca (1929-1930) depict the fight against the Spanish conquerors.
Marriage, art, and controversy in the United States
In 1929 Rivera married the artist Frida Kahlo (1907–1954). The couple traveled in the United States, where Rivera produced many works of art, between 1930 and 1933. In San Francisco he painted murals for the Stock Exchange Luncheon Club and the California School of Fine Arts. Two years later he had an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. One of his most important works is the fresco in the Detroit Institute of Arts (1933), which depicts industrial life in the United States. Rivera returned to New York and began painting a mural for Rockefeller Center (1933). He was forced to stop work on the mural because it included a picture of Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), the founder of the Russian Communist Party and the first leader of the Soviet Union. Many people in the United States disagreed with communism (a political and economic system in which property and goods are owned by the government and are supposed to be given to people based on their need) and Lenin and the mural was later destroyed. Rivera was a member of the Mexican Communist Party and many of his works included representations of his political beliefs. In New York Rivera also did a series of frescoes on movable panels depicting a portrait of America for the Independent Labor Institute before returning to Mexico in 1933.
Back to Mexico
After Rivera and Kahlo returned to Mexico, he painted a mural for the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City (1934). This was a copy of the project that he had started in Rockefeller Center. In 1935 Rivera completed frescoes, which he had left unfinished in 1930, on the stairway in the National Palace. The frescoes show the history of Mexico from pre-Columbian times to the present and end with an image representing Karl Marx (1818–1883), the German philosopher and economist whose ideas became known as Marxism. These frescoes show Rivera's political beliefs and his support of Marxism. The four movable panels he worked on for the Hotel Reforma (1936) were removed from the building because they depicted a representation of his views against Mexican political figures. During this period he painted portraits of Lupe Marín and Ruth Rivera and two easel paintings, Dancing Girl in Repose and the Dance of the Earth.
In 1940 Rivera returned to San Francisco to paint a mural for a junior college on the general theme of culture in the future. Rivera believed that the culture of the future would be a combination of the artistic genius of South America and the industrial genius of North America. His two murals in the National Institute of Cardiology in Mexico City (1944) show the development of cardiology (the study of the heart) and include portraits of the outstanding physicians in that field. In 1947 he painted a mural for the Hotel del Prado, A Dream in the Alameda.
A celebration of fifty years of art
In 1951 an exhibition honoring fifty years of Rivera's art took place in the Palace of Fine Arts. His last works were mosaics for the stadium of the National University and for the Insurgents' Theater, and a fresco in the Social Security Hospital No. 1. Frida Kahlo died on July 13, 1954. Diego Rivera died in Mexico City on November 25, 1957.
For More Information
Hamill, Pete. Diego Rivera. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.
Marnham, Patrick. Dreaming with His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera. New York: Knopf, 1998.
Rivera, Diego, and Gladys March. My Art, My Life; an Autobiography. New York: Citadel Press, 1960. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1991.
Wolfe, Bertram David. The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera. New York: Stein and Day, 1963. Reprint, New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000.
Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Mexico's most famous painter, rebelled against the traditional school of painting and developed his own style, a combination of historical, social, and critical ideas depicting the cultural evolution of Mexico.
Diego Rivera was born in Guanajuato, Guanajuato State, on Dec. 8, 1886. He studied painting at the National School of Fine Arts, Mexico City, under Andrés Ríos (1897), Félix Para, Santiago Rebull, and José María Velasco (1899-1901).
In 1907 Rivera received a grant to study in Europe and lived there until 1921. He first worked in the studio of Eduardo Chicharro in Madrid and in 1909 settled in Paris. He was influenced by the impressionists, particularly Pierre Auguste Renoir. Rivera then worked in a postimpressionist style, inspired by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy, and Amedeo Modigliani.
The series of works Rivera produced between 1913 and 1917 are in the cubist idiom, for example, Jacques Lipchitz (Portrait of a Young Man; 1914). Some of them have Mexican themes, such as the Guerrillero (1915). By 1918 he was producing pencil sketches of the highest quality, exemplified in his self-portrait. Before returning to Mexico he traveled through Italy.
Rivera's first mural, the Creation (1922), in the Bolívar Amphitheater at the University of Mexico, painted in encaustic, was the first important mural of the century. From the beginning he sought for, and achieved, a free and modern expression which would be at the same time understandable. He had an enormous talent for structuring his works and a great hand for color, but his two most pronounced characteristics were intellectual inventiveness and refined sensuality. His first mural was an allegory in a philosophical sense. In his later works he developed various historical, social, and critical themes in which the history and the life of the Mexican people appear as an epic and as a specific example of universal ideas.
Rivera next executed frescoes in the Ministry of Education Building, Mexico City (1923-1926). The frescoes in the Auditorium of the National School of Agriculture, Chapingo (1927), are considered his masterpiece. The unity of the work and the quality of the component parts, particularly the feminine nudes, show him at the height of his creative power. The general theme is man's biological and social development and his conquest of nature in order to improve it. This idea, which sprang from positivist roots, is complicated by Rivera's sociohistorical criticism and by a revolutionary feeling under the symbol of the red star. The murals in the Palace of Cortés, Cuernavaca (1929-1930), depict the fight against the Spanish conquerors.
In 1930 Rivera went to the United States. In San Francisco he did the murals for the Stock Exchange Luncheon Club and the California School of Fine Arts. Two years later he had an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. One of his most important works is the fresco in the Detroit Institute of Arts (1933), which depicts industrial life in the United States. He returned to New York and painted part of a mural for Rockefeller Center (1933; destroyed) and a series of frescoes on movable panels depicting a portrait of America for the Independent Labor Institute.
When Rivera returned to Mexico City, he executed the mural for the Palace of Fine Arts (1934), a replica of the one he had started in Rockefeller Center, and completed the frescoes on the monumental stairway in the National Palace (1935), which interpret the history of Mexico from pre-Columbian times to the present and culminate in the symbolic image of Marx. Rivera later continued the frescoes along the corridors, but he never completed them. The four movable panels he executed for the Hotel Reforma (1936) were withdrawn from the building because of their controversial nature. During this period he did the portraits of Lupe Marín and of Ruth Rivera and two easel paintings, Dancing Girl in Repose and the Dance of the Earth.
In 1940 Rivera returned to San Francisco to do a mural for a junior college on the general theme of culture in the future, which he believed would consist of a fusion of the artistic genius of South America with the industrial genius of North America. His two murals in the National Institute of Cardiology, Mexico City (1944), portray the development of cardiology and include portraits of the outstanding physicians in that field. His mural for the Hotel del Prado, A Dream in the Alameda (1947), was based on a historical and critical theme.
In 1951 a great retrospective covering Rivera's 50 years of activity as an artist took place in the Palace of Fine Arts. His last works were the mosaics for the stadium of the National University and for the Insurgents' Theater and the fresco in the Social Security Hospital No. 1. In 1956 he made his second trip to Russia (his first was in 1927-1928). He died in Mexico City on Nov. 25, 1957.
Rivera's own writings include Portrait of America, written with Bertram D. Wolfe (1934), and My Art, My Life, written with Gladys March (1960). Biographies are Wolfe's Diego Rivera: His Life and Times (1939) and The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera (1963). □
The artist Diego Rivera (December 13, 1886– November 24, 1957) is best known for the murals he completed in Mexico and in the United States during the 1920s and early 1930s. Rivera, along with the Mexican artists Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, was immensely popular among North American intellectuals and artists during the 1930s. His murals in large part provided the inspiration for the public art projects sponsored by New Deal agencies during the 1930s. Rivera served as a model of a socially committed artist whose work reflected the struggles of everyday people.
Born in Guanajuato, Mexico, and raised in Mexico City, Rivera started drawing at an early age. At age ten, he enrolled in the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, where he completed his studies in 1905. Upon graduation, Rivera spent several years in Spain and in Paris, where he encountered many of the modern masters, including Pablo Picasso. Influenced by Picasso, Rivera painted hundreds of cubist works between 1913 and 1917. Returning to Mexico in 1921, Rivera began work on several government-commissioned murals, including one at the Ministry of Education that encompassed three floors and spanned 17,000 square feet. Having been exposed to Marxism while in Europe, Rivera belonged to the Mexican Communist Party from 1922 to 1929, when he was expelled for his relationship with the Mexican government.
In 1930, Rivera traveled to the United States, where he prepared for major exhibitions of his work in San Francisco and in New York City. Rivera also painted murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange, the California School of Fine Arts, and at the Detroit Institute of Arts. In the Detroit mural, Rivera explored the power of modern industrial technology and capitalism. In 1933, Rivera received a commission to paint a mural in the new Rockefeller Center in New York City. He was dismissed from the project when he insisted upon including the figure of Vladimir Lenin in the mural. He completed one more mural at the New Workers School before returning to Mexico in December 1933.
Rivera completed only one mural during the rest of the 1930s; instead, he focused on smaller works, such as landscapes. He was instrumental in arranging with the Mexican government Leon Trotsky's asylum. In 1937, Trotsky and his wife arrived in Mexico and stayed as guests of Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo in Kahlo's family home in Coyoacán. For political and personal reasons, Trotsky and Rivera ended their affiliation in 1939. In 1940, Rivera returned to San Francisco to work in the Art-in-Action pavilion at the Golden Gate International Exposition, where visitors watched him as he painted the mural "Pan American Unity."
Hamill, Pete. Diego Rivera. 1999.
Hurlburt, Laurance P. The Mexican Muralists in the United States. 1989.
Wolfe, Bertram D. Diego Rivera: His Life and Times. 1939.
Wolfe, Bertram D. The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera. 1963.
Larissa M. Smith