Diego Rivera

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.

Further Reading on Diego Rivera

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).