Art of the 20th Century


Art Styles in 20th century Art Map


Diego Rivera





An Artist is Born

Apprentice Years in Europe

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From Recognition to Renown

Dream of Peace and Unity: the Last Journey

collection "Frida" - Frida Kahlo





An Artist is Born


An extraordinary artist, a political militant and an eccentric spirit of his age, Diego Rivera played a prime role in an outstanding period in Mexican history, which made him a controversial figure outside his own country and the best-known artist of Latin America. A painter, draughtsman, graphic artist, sculptor, book-illustrator, costume- and stage-designer and architect, Rivera was also one of the first private collectors of pre-Columbian Mexican art.

Linked to names like those of Pablo Picasso, Andre Breton, Leon Trotsky, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti and Frida Kahlo, he was the object of love and hatred, admiration and disgust, legend and abuse. The myths that surrounded him, even in his own lifetime, arose not only from his work but also from his active participation in the life of his time, his friendships and conflicts with leading figures, his imposing physical appearance and his rebellious nature.

Rivera himself contributed not a little to this myth-making process in his memoirs, which have been drawn upon in numerous biographies. He liked to present himself as being of exotic origin, precocious in youth, a young rebel who fought in the Mexican Revolution, a visionary who declined to join the European avant-garde and whose role as leader of the artistic revolution in Mexico was predestined. That the facts were much more mundane, and that Rivera had great difficulty in separating fiction from reality, is attested by Gladys March in her preface to the artist's autobiography as told to her: "Rivera, who later, in his work, was to make Mexican history into one of the great myths of our century, was incapable of restraining his colossal imagination when telling me of his own life. He had transformed certain events, especially those belonging to his earliest years, into legends."
To present the life and the work of this extraordinary artist will therefore be to bring the two into closer relationship.

Jose Diego Maria and his twin brother Jose Carlos Maria were born on 8 or 13 December 1886 (the sources give different dates), the eldest sons of Diego Rivera and Maria del Pilar Barrientos, two years after their marriage, in Guanajuato, capital of the State of Guanajuato in Mexico. Both parents were teachers. Diego Rivera was of Creole origin; his father, owner of numerous silver mines in Guanajuato, is said to have been Russian born and, after emigrating to Mexico, to have fought alongside Benito

Juarez, who was the first president of Mexico after independence, against Maximilian, emperor of Mexico (1863-1867), and the invading French. The maternal grandmother is said to have been of half-Indian blood. Both these claims, though as yet unproven, nevertheless reflect those ancestral elements to which Rivera was later to attach special value. He was proud both of his right to call himself, through his grandmother's Indian blood, a real mestizo, and of the revolutionary inheritance from his grandfather that was to prove so important to him.


Head of a Goat, 1895

The birth of Maria del Pilar, Diego's younger sister, in 1891, consoled the family for the loss of his twin brother, who had died at the age of eighteen months in 1888. As a result of this experience Maria Barrientos took up medical studies and became a midwife. Her and her husband's espousal of the radical ideas published in the twice-weekly liberal newspaper El Democrata, of which Diego's father was coeditor, provoked hostility towards the family on its arrival in Mexico City in 1892. General Porfirio Diaz, military leader of the Republic during the French intervention, who made himself absolute dictator after seizing power, and was president of Mexico almost uninterruptedly from 1876 to the outbreak of the Revolution in 1910, endeavoured to stamp out all opposition. Because of the Riveras' fallen standing in middle-class circles of the provincial town where they lived, and also because the wealth of the silver mines of Guanajuato had been exhausted, the parents sought a better situation in the capital.

Maria del Pilar Barrientos was a strict Catholic, and Diego, who had been taught to read by his father at four, was sent to school, in 1894 at the age of eight, to the Carpantier Catholic College. Receiving a distinction in the third class in 1896, Diego, who was showing artistic gifts, began evening classes at the San Carlos Academy. The boy had been passionately fond of drawing from an early age, and his talent was now developed by painting lessons. His father insisted that he enter a military school, which he soon left to enrol as a student at the respected San Carlos Academy. Art was paramount in his life: as he later wrote, he saw it as an organic human function, not only useful but life-supporting, like the consumption of bread and water or the breathing of air.


Rivera's course of study at the Academy from 1898 to 1905 was a rigorous one, following traditional European models, based on technical proficiency, absolute ideals and rational enquiry. He was taught by the Spanish painter Santiago Rebull, who was a pupil of Ingres and an ardent admirer of the Nazarenes, and by the Naturalist artist Felix Parra, who influenced Rivera above all as an expert in pre-Columbian Mexican culture and also taught him how to copy classical sculpture. On the death of Santiago Rebull in 1903 the Catalan painter Antonio Fabres Costa became vice-rector of the Academy; he provided his students with photographs instead of prints of old masters to be used as models and introduced a new drawing method based on that of Jules-Jean Desire Pillet.

Alongside his studio work Rivera began plein air drawing and painting. As a student of the landscape painter Jose Maria Velasco, and profiting from his lessons in perspective, he was soon painting his first landscapes; Velasco's teaching and influence are clearly reflected in The Threshing Floor. In this depiction of a team of horses on the edge of the broad plain below Popocatepetl, the volcano south-east of Mexico City, the handling of light as well as the whole conception of landscape reveal the teacher. Like Velasco, Rivera sets out to convey the distinctive colourfulness of a typical Mexican landscape.


The Threshing Floor


While at the Academy Rivera also made the acquaintance of the landscape painter Gerardo Murillo, who, more on account of his theory than of his painting, is often described as the ideological forefather of the Mexican artistic revolution because he proclaimed the values of Indian crafts and Mexican culture. Dr Atl, as Murillo called himself later, after a monosyllabic word in the Nahuatl language meaning "water", had just returned from a visit to Europe, and his account of contemporary European art made a profound impact on his young students. Murillo spurred Rivera to widen his artistic range, and thanks to a grant from the governor of Veracruz, Teodoro A. Dehesa, and the sale of some works at a group exhibition organized at the San Carlos Academy by Murillo in 1906, he was enabled to visit Europe.




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