Diego Rivera

Diego Rivera

In Diego Rivera, Mexico had a fair share of limelight with the US, France, Italy, and Spain when it comes to having the most popular fine artists of the 20th century. Rivera was a mural painter who wanted to paint images based on what the common people would understand and relate to. Therefore, his themes and subjects mainly revolved around the social issues of his country and daily routines of its people, particularly the farmers and laborers.

Rivera’s grand scale murals ushered in a unique Mexican art movement that would celebrate mural paintings during the 1920’s through the 1950’s. He executed frescos for buildings in Cuernavaca, Mexico City and Chapingo as well as in the biggest cities of the US like New York, Detroit and San Francisco. Thus, it is safe to assume that Rivera had achieved a highly successful career despite being involved with so many women, which resulted to having a stormy relationship with Frida Kahlo.

Additionally, his marriage with Kahlo is often seen as the union between a dove and an elephant for Rivera was huge and the wife was rather small yet the two are both equals in terms of their artistic achievements. This is also why their marital union is considered as an alliance between two famous painters. However, Rivera developed his own style which is classified as social realism compared to Kahlo’s surrealist works.

Rivera’s early works consisted of smaller paintings that depict the typical Mexican life of his generation, in which the subjects are laborers, nature, and farmers. He used vivid colors and he matched them with simple compositions. Few examples of paintings that represent these characteristics include Flower Day (1925) and The Flower Carrier (1935).

During his middle years he frequently traveled around the US and Europe to study and do some commissions. There came a point when his association with Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros became rewarding and productive for Mexican art as they founded the Mexican Muralist Movement. The group used a style is a fusion of classical and modern art influences from Europe such as post-impressionism, cubism and Renaissance. Rivera had also localized this style by applying Mexican art that flourished during the pre-Columbian era, which he would became known for eventually.

Below are examples of Diego Rivera’s most famous works:

  • Two Women (1914)
  • The Aztec World (1929-1935)
  • Blood of the Revolutionary Martyrs Fertilizing the Earth (1926)
  • Chapingo Chapel: Subterranean Forces Murals (1926)
  • Detroit Industry (1932-1933)
  • Man at the Crossroads (1934)

Early Life

Diego Maria dela Concepcio Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodriguez was born in December 8, 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico. He was raised by an affluent family, whose origins can be traced as far as the Spanish Royalty. His mother was a Jew, though, who had to convert to Roman Catholicism. Diego acknowledged his Jewishness so as to saying that it “is the dominant element in my life”. At around two or three, he began showing interest in drawing, using the walls as his canvas.

Fortunately, as young as he was, his parents supported him all the way by providing him drawing tools he needed to nurture that talent. This then helped him became passionate about art more than ever and while growing up, he studied in different art schools in Mexico and Europe. He received his primary education from the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City and then entered the workshop of Jose Guadalupe Posada.

In college, Diego entered the military but failed to stay a little longer because he missed art. In 1891 he decided to take his art classes at the San Carlos Academy full time. It was also during this time when his father became well acquainted with the artist, Teodoro Dehasa, so he was able to get his son a scholarship with him which Diego happily obliged. Dehasa introduced him to European art and found the young painter talented and skillful enough to deserve a trip to the said continent. Therefore in 1907, Diego was sent to Europe to study the works of the Masters which lasted about 14 years.

Early Training

In Europe, he first settled in Spain to study under Chicharo. He was to stay with the said master for two years and in some cases he would send his works to Dehasa back in Mexico City to prove himself to him. At the time, Cubism became a predominant artistic movement in the vibrant Paris, which would become his next destination. He traveled to Paris in 1913 and remained there until 1918. He spent most of his days learning the nook and cranny of Cubism. There he also learned how art was elitist for it could only be enjoyed by the well-off families when even the masses should be able to see and appreciate art.

Personal Life

Diego Rivera met several women while traveling Europe, some of whom he ended up marrying. Angelina Belhoff became his first wife, a Russian painter whom he met in 1909. Belhoff and Rivera lived in together for the next twelve years and they bore a son in 1916 who was named after the Mexican artist himself. The duo traveled all over Europe and had been able to participate in various art exhibitions.

Unfortunately, in 1918, he befriended Elie Fauve who turned out be his best friend for the rest of his life. It was Fauve who re-introduced the painter to mural painting and fell in love with it once again. Rivera had then moved to Italy to study Renaissance art by the Old Masters, whose traditional styles he adapted in most of his mural paintings. After years of traveling a lot, he finally returned to Mexico but he left Belhoff and their son, too.

Return to Mexico

Before he went back home, he met Maria Vorobeiff-Stebelska who was allegedly the reason he left his family. He had an affair with Stebelska and the relationship bore a daughter named Marika but likewise to what he did with his first family, he Marika and Steblska, too. Back in his home town, he did not expect to become one of the sought-after artists that even the government officials have heard of his name. In fact, the minister of Public Education, Jose Vasconcelos contracted him to paint wall paintings for the National Preparatory School.

Rivera had then began working on the commission in 1922. The art piece was entitled Creation, which was also his first mural work. The painting depicts the relationship between the divine and humans, wherein the divine presence is represented through rays of light shining down upon groups of people. The manner by which the mural was painted is based on Mayan styles, which he derived from the ruins during his visit there.

In 1922 he found love again in Guadalupe Marin. The couple had two daughters namely Guadalupe and Ruth. The marriage would prove to be a positive one for Rivera for he became motivated to produce as many as 124 frescoes on the premises of the Ministry of Public Education alone. Five years later he was sent to Russia to represent the Mexican Communist Party. Nothing significant happened until he decided to divorce his wife, Guadalupe, and leave his daughters to his then wife.

In 1928, Rivera met Frida Kahlo at a party. They had an intense yet stormy relationship all throughout but this did not stop them to get married by 1929. However, Rivera continued to be his old self, cheating on his wife several times over and in return, Frida cheated on him with the persons he shared an extra marital affair with. Rivera became upset with his wife even more when he found out that she was infertile. Another fact is that Kahlo was a talented artist so much so that he was afraid she could outrank him in the near future.

In 1939, due to irreconcilable differences, Rivera divorced Kahlo but decided to get back together in 1940. During this period Rivera grew to be an atheist which was told in his painting, Dreams of a Sunday in the Alameda. This piece may seem unsettling for his Christian-dominant country as it explicitly shows a “God does not exist” sign being held up by Ignacio Ramirez, the central figure in the painting. Apparently, as the painting was expected to be sacrilegious to any kinds of religion, the art dealers asked him to remove the said inscription. It would not be allowed to be a part of any art show until Rivera decided to remove it, which he did nine years later.

Later Years

Long before Rivera divorced Khalo, he had fruitful years working as the head manager of the Department of Plastic Crafts until 1938. In 1930 he founded an organization called Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors alongside Siqueiros and Jose Orozco. At that same year he was to receive his first international commission by the Stock Exchange Club of the US. The project went successful that he was hired by the California School of Fine Arts to work for them.

Also through the 1930’s, Rivera worked for Nelson Rockefeller. He was asked to complete a mural for the Radio Corporations Arts building but the painter included the face of Lenin in the painting which the art patron did not like, leading him to reject it. Lenin was a communist and the US had been against this socio-economic movement. Rivera’s communist aspirations were no secret to anybody who had known him, including Leon Trotsky of Russia. In fact, when Trotsky was seeking refuge from the threat brought by the complete take-over of Stalin, he asked the Mexican-native to take him in.

Diego Rivera granted the request and let Trotsky along with his wife stay in his house. In 1939, Kahlo and Rivera were divorced but only to remarry each other one year later. In 1940 Hotel de Prado became his next commission for which he painted a controversial mural that implied his atheist views. In 1954, Frida Kahlo died and he was left devastated over it. Her death made him realize how hard he fell for her and finally able to recognize her worth as a wife and an artist.

In his own words, “Frida Kahlo is the greatest Mexican painter. Her work is destined to be multiplied by reproductions and will speak, thanks to books, to the whole world. It is one of the most formidable artistic documents and most intense testimonies on human truth of our time.” After his wife’s death, he married his assistant and art dealer. Rivera had since spent the remainder of his life with her until he died on November 1957. His body was laid to rest at the Rotunda of Famous Men in the Civil Pantheon of Mourning.