Born in 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico, Diego Rivera is one of his country’s most eminent artists along with wife Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). His murals that celebrate Mexican heritage are world famous and his life’s works have been inspirational to artists at home and abroad. Linked to revolutionary movements, Rivera’s paintings also reflect the political and industrial reality of his times.
Rivera began studying art at a young age; at ten years old he was enrolled in Mexico City’s Academy of San Carlos. His promising portfolio led the governor of Vera Cruz to sponsor his continued study in Madrid. Rivera’s tutelage in Europe also included an influential stay among the Montparnasse artists of Paris where he became friends with Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani. Art critics often point to the Picasso influence in some of Rivera’s paintings like the 1913 Woman at the Well which shows marked elements of the cubism style.
But it was the very old church frescoes of Italy that had the most dramatic influence on Rivera. Through these, Rivera became convinced that art should belong to the people—all the people, not merely the wealthy. He believed simply that the poor and working people needed art the most. His empathy for workers and the impoverished would become more pronounced with his temporarily joining the Mexican Communist Party in 1922. Eventually he would even help obtain asylum for the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
Rivera’s enchantment for revolutionaries and their ideas was often evident in his work. He frequently painted Mexican leaders who were fighting for change in their country. His exuberance for his countrymen was usually at the core of his art that, indeed, celebrates the working men and women of Mexico in colors and styles that would give the nation a truly nationalist art. Rivera also incorporated elements of Mayan art which supported his depiction of the real Mexican character.
Rivera’s prestige would earn him invitations throughout the world to paint murals and speak. One of his most famous murals abroad is Detroit Industry located in the Detroit Institute of the Arts. This mural, that includes twenty-seven frescoes, is an imposing depiction of factory workers and modern machinery. While much of Rivera’s art is in his homeland, many examples of his work can be viewed at such places at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles Museum of Art, Chicago’s Art Institute, and the Buenos Aires Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
Rivera’s personal life was considered tumultuous. He had several marriages that produced several children and it is believed he fathered more than one illegitimate child. His most famous union was, of course, with the artist Frida Kahlo which ended at her death. Rivera died in 1957. He is best remembered for his establishment of the Mexican Mural Resistance and his subsequent murals that continue to celebrate the Mexican spirit.