Diego Rivera (December 8, 1886 – November 24, 1957) was born Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez in Guanajuato, Gto. He was a world-famous Mexican painter, an active Communist, and husband of Frida Kahlo, 1929-1939 and 1940-1954 (her death). Rivera’s large wall works in fresco helped establish the Mexican Mural Renaissance. Between 1922 and 1953, Rivera painted murals in Mexico City, Chapingo, Cuernavaca, San Francisco, Detroit, and New York City. His 1931 retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was their second.
Diego Rivera was born in Guanajuato City, Guanajuato, to a well-off family. Rivera was descended, on his mother’s side, from Jews who converted to Roman Catholicism, and, on his father’s side, from Spanish nobility. Since he was ten years of age, Rivera studied art at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City. He was sponsored to continue study in Europe by Teodoro A. Dehesa Méndez, the governor of the State of Veracruz.
After arrival in Europe in 1907, Rivera initially went to study with Eduardo Chicharro in Madrid, Spain, and from there went to Paris, France, to live and work with the great gathering of artists in Montparnasse, especially at La Ruche, where his friend Amedeo Modigliani painted his portrait in 1914. His circle of close friends, which included Ilya Ehrenburg, Chaim Soutine, Modigliani’s wife Jeanne Hébuterne, Max Jacob, gallery owner Leopold Zborowski, and Moise Kisling, was captured for posterity by Marie Vorobieff-Stebelska (Marevna) in her painting “Homage to Friends from Montparnasse” (1962).
In those years, Paris was witnessing the beginning of cubism in paintings by such eminent painters as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. From 1913 to 1917, Rivera enthusiastically embraced this new school of art. Around 1917, inspired by Paul Cézanne’s paintings, Rivera shifted toward Post-Impressionism with simple forms and large patches of vivid colors. His paintings began to attract attention, and he was able to display them at several exhibitions.
Career in Mexico
In 1920, urged by Alberto J. Pani, the Mexican ambassador to France, Rivera left France and traveled through Italy studying its art, including Renaissance frescoes. After Jose Vasconcelos became Minister of Education, Rivera returned to Mexico in 1921 to become involved in the government sponsored Mexican mural program planned by Vasconcelos. (See also Mexican Muralism)The program included such Mexican artists as José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo, and the French artist Jean Charlot. In January 1922, he painted – experimentally in encaustic – his first significant mural Creation in the Bolívar Auditorium of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City guarding himself with a pistol against right-wing students.
In the autumn of 1922, Rivera participated in the founding of the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors, and later that year he joined the Mexican Communist Party (including its Central Committee). His murals, subsequently painted in fresco only, dealt with Mexican society and reflected the country’s 1910 Revolution. Rivera developed his own native style based on large, simplified figures and bold colors with an Aztec influence clearly present in murals at the Secretariat of Public Education in Mexico City begun in September 1922, intended to consist of one hundred and twenty-four frescoes, and finished in 1928.
His art, in a fashion similar to the steles of the Maya, tells stories. The mural “En el Arsenal” (In the Arsenal) shows on the right hand side Tina Modotti holding an ammunition belt and facing Julio Antonio Mella, in a light hat, and Vittorio Vidale behind in a black hat. Rivera’s radical political beliefs, his attacks on the church and clergy, as well as his dealings with Trotskyists and left-wing assassins made him a controversial figure even in communist circles. Leon Trotsky even lived with Rivera and Kahlo for several months while exiled in Mexico. Some of Rivera’s most famous murals are featured at the National School of Agriculture at Chapingo near Texcoco (1925–27), in the Cortés Palace in Cuernavaca (1929-30), and the National Palace in Mexico City (1929–30, 1935).
In the autumn of 1927, Rivera arrived in Moscow, accepting an invitation to take part in the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. Subsequently, he was to paint a mural for the Red Army Club in Moscow, but in 1928 he was ordered out by the authorities because of involvement in anti-Soviet politics, and he returned to Mexico. In 1929, Rivera was expelled from the Mexican Communist Party. His 1928 mural In the Arsenal was interpreted by some as evidence of Rivera’s prior knowledge of the murder of Julio Antonio Mella allegedly by Stalinist assassin Vittorio Vidale. After divorcing Guadalupe (Lupe) Marin, Rivera married Frida Kahlo in August 1929. Also in 1929, the first English-language book on Rivera, American journalist Ernestine Evans’s The Frescoes of Diego Rivera, was published in New York. In December, Rivera accepted a commission to paint murals in the Palace of Cortez in Cuernavaca from the American Ambassador to Mexico.
In September 1930, Rivera accepted an invitation from architect Timothy L. Pflueger to paint for him in San Francisco, California. After arriving in November accompanied by Kahlo, Rivera painted a mural for the City Club of the San Francisco Stock Exchange for US$2,500 and a fresco for the California School of Fine Art, which is now in the San Francisco Art Institute. Kahlo and Rivera worked and lived at the studio of Ralph Stackpole, who had suggested Rivera to Pflueger. Rivera met Helen Wills Moody, a famous tennis player, who modeled for his City Club mural. In November 1931, Rivera had a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Kahlo was present at the opening of the New York MoMA show. Between 1932 and 1933, he completed a famous series of twenty-seven fresco panels entitled Detroit Industry on the walls of an inner court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. During the McCarthyism of the 1950s, a large sign was placed in the courtyard defending the artistic merit of the murals while attacking his politics as “detestable.”
His mural Man at the Crossroads, begun in 1933 for the Rockefeller Center in New York City, was removed after a furor erupted in the press over a portrait of Vladimir Lenin it contained. As a result of the negative publicity, a further commission was cancelled to paint a mural for an exhibition at the Chicago World’s Fair. In December 1933, Rivera returned to Mexico, and he repainted Man at the Crossroads in 1934 in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. This surviving version was called Man, Controller of the Universe. On June 5, 1940, invited again by Pflueger, Rivera returned for the last time to the United States to paint a ten-panel mural for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. Pan American Unity was completed November 29, 1940. As he was painting, Rivera was on display in front of Exposition attendees. He received US$1,000 per month and US$1,000 for travel expenses. The mural includes representations of two of Pflueger’s architectural works as well as portraits of Kahlo, woodcarver Dudley C. Carter, and actress Paulette Goddard, who is depicted holding Rivera’s hand as they plant a white tree together. Rivera’s assistants on the mural included the pioneer African-American artist, dancer, and textile designer Thelma Johnson Streat. The mural and its archives reside at City College of San Francisco.
Rivera was a notorious womanizer who had fathered at least one illegitimate child. Angelina Beloff was his first wife and gave birth to a son, Diego (1916-1918). Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska gave birth to a daughter in 1918 or 1919 when Rivera was married to Angelina.(According to “House on the Bridge: Ten Turbulent Years with Diego Rivera” and Angeline’s memoirs called “Memorias”. He married his second wife, Guadalupe Marín, in June 1922, with whom he had two daughters. He was still married when he met the art student Frida Kahlo. They married on August 21, 1929 when he was forty-two and she was twenty-two. Their mutual infidelities and his violent temper led to divorce in 1939, but they remarried December 8, 1940 in San Francisco. After Kahlo’s death, Rivera married Emma Hurtado, his agent since 1946, on July 29, 1955. He died on November 24, 1957.