Visual Biography of Diego Rivera

Marela Trejo Zacarías

Spanish 94

Kenyon College



When I speak about Diego Rivera as the creator of the Mexican identity, I speak about the creation of my own identity. Diego Rivera's murals have created in me a visual memory of Mexico's historic past and have helped me to understand and respect my nationality. Two blocks away from my house is located the "Teatro de los Insurgentes" with the great mural of Diego Rivera made out of mosaic. Every day, walking along Insurgentes to take the bus, I would admire the mural with the images of Cantinflas, Zapata, and the theater life in Mexico. The same happened with the images that I kept on my memory when my parents would take me to Bellas Artes, to the National Palace and to the Cortes Palace: the battles against the Spaniards, the indigenous life and the class struggle in Mexico are not distant facts that I remember with words out of a textbook. For me, the history of Mexico is full of living images, with the bright colors of Diego Rivera. Furthermore, my memories are accompanied with feelings of pain, pride and magic that come directly from the emotions represented in the murals. Thanks to Diego Rivera's murals I can naturally recall the history of Mexico.

Diego was in charge of recreating the Mexican past to remind us of our roots. His life, however, has not be remembered in the same way. There are written biographies and one or two portraits of him. But Diego's life was not made out of words, it was made out of images. While I was doing the investigation for this project I found out that half of Diego's narrations regarding his life were a product of his imagination. This is why many people would call him mitomano. For me, when he invented things about his life, he was only being congruent with his way of looking at the world. He would embellish his life in the way he would have painted it in a mural.

This project is an homenaje to Diego Rivera. The page consists of a visual biography which seeks to represent the life of Diego Rivera in the form of a small mural. Through my drawing/mural I tried to narrate the main facts of his life. Each image has an illustrated text that explains what the image means in Diego's life. The majority of the drawings are based on pictures as well as on some of Diego's paintings.

This project could not have been completed without the help of Professor Clara Román-Odio, my advisor for the project, and William Quimby, who offered me technical help for the creation of the web-page. This project emerges from an independent study with Prof. Román-Odio entitled" Diego Rivera's influence in Mexican Society" (SPAN/94). The independent study is part of the OHIO5 Consortium's project on Diego Rivera, organized by Prof. Eduardo Jaramillo from Denison University. This project was based on the art exhibition "DIEGO RIVERA, Art and Revolution" sponsored by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the "Istituto Nacional de las Bellas Artes (INBA)" in Mexico.


Diego Rivera is considered the father of Mexican mural art and the father of modern political art in Mexico along with Guadalupe Posada. Posada started breaking the wall between the government and the masses by doing political satire in his drawings. Diego reinterpreted Mexican history from a revolutionary and nationalistic point of view. Not only did Diego expressed powerful ideas in his murals, but he also applied the tools he learned with modernist techniques. And as Kalstron explains:"More than any other artist, Diego Rivera provided models for incorporating cultural past and ethnic identity into an alternative modernist vision, one that provided for a responsible fusion of the social and the aesthetic" (Kalstorm 126). Diego was an important personality in the art world of the 20th century and his thoughts were well respected in the art community. He was an innovator in expressing his ideals unifying art and politics.


Diego María de la Rivera y Barrientos and his twin brother Carlos were born on December 13, 1886 in Leon, Guanajuato. Carlos died in 1888, which left Diego as an only child. Since he was very young (he begins to draw at the age of three), he loved to paint, so much that his father covered a room of their house in Guanajuato with paper so that the child could paint all over the walls. Diego says that it was in that room where he created his first murals.


Portrait of Maria Barrientos Rivera, 1896
Pencil on paper
Dolores Olmedo Patiño Museum

Diego and María Barrientos Rivera lived on 80 Pocitos Street in the heart of Guanajuato. Rivera described his mother as "diminutive, almost childlike, with large innocent eyes" and his father as a "powerfully built man, tall, black-bearded, handsome and charming (Rivera18).

After the death of Diego's brother, María Barrientos developed a terrible neurosis. In order to take her out of it she decided to study a career and successfully graduated in Obstetrics.

Diego's other mother was Antonia, his Indian nanny. He had very poor health when he was young and his parents sent him to the mountains to live with Antonia. Diego had a very precious memory of her. Antonia was an inspiration for many of his paintings and his love for the indigenous culture.

Diego goes to Europe:

In 1896, while he was still in high-school, he entered the Academy of San Carlos. He was so obviously talented that in 1906, after his first show, he was granted a four year scholarship from the governor of Veracruz, Teodoro Dahesa, to continue his studies in Europe. In 1907 he goes to Spain, where he promptly becomes part of the intellectual circles. After studying there for two years he moves to Paris and starts living with Angelina Beloff.

Angelina Belloff:

Portrait of Angelina Belloff, 1909 Oil on canvas

Propiedad del Estado de Veracruz, Mexico

Angelina Belloff was a Russian émigré artist. Diego met her in Spain among the artistic circles. Diego and Angelina had a son but due to an flu epidemic the child died in the fall of 1918. Diego had many lovers, among them was Marvena, another Russian woman. Diego and Marvena had a child named Marika right after the death of Angelina's baby. Diego precisely describes his relationship with Angelina when he says "She gave me everything a woman can give to a man. In return, she received from me all the heartache and misery that a man can inflict upon a woman" (Rivera,102) In June of 1921 Rivera left Belloff in Paris and goes to Mexico, saying that once he is established he will send for Angelina. He never does and they do not see each other again until many years later and by pure chance. Angelina's and Diego's romance is narrated in Elena Poniatowska's novel Querido Diego te abraza Quiela.


Artistic style:

"En las afueras de Toledo", 1912
Oil on canvas
Museum Dolores Olmedo Patiño

While studying in Spain, Rivera was fascinated by the works of Cezanne, who introduced him to cubism. He was also very interested in Mondrian and created many paintings reproducing his style. His greatest influence, however, was Pablo Picasso's. Diego was interested in cubism because it questioned the pre-established conceptions of painting. With his cubist work, such as "Zapatista Landscape," " Woman at the Well" and "Sailor at Lunch," Rivera earned recognition among the artistic circles in Paris. This technique, however, did not fulfill him completely because he felt a lack of originality in his work. He was following Picasso's trend and felt that he would never be like him (Dawn, 199). This is why he decides to find his own style by going back to a more realistic way of painting. The most prominent critic of the time, Pierre Reverdy, did not appreciate Rivera's change of style, and neither did Leonce Rosemberg, his art dealer. The art community abandoned Diego, which left him in absolute poverty because no one would buy his paintings. This decision proved costly to his reputation as a modernist, but not to the evolution of his aesthetics (Dawn 106) The situation, however, forced Diego to go back to Mexico on July of 1921.
Diego Rivera's style, was the product of the influence of many different art styles, such as cubism, impressionism, classical European style and Aztec art. His murals had a busyness that remind us the Baroque, covering Churches with images and details. Some critics referred to Diego's particular style as "agoraphobic" because he seemed to be afraid of having open space in his paintings (Espejo 66). In his murals he uses many symbols that come from Aztec codices. For example, he uses the colors and figures of idols, as well as the way in which the Indians used images to narrate myths and historical events. In some of his work we can see a use of space that comes from cubism (in Creation, for example) and a use of perspective that comes from his early classical studies. In the sketches of the murals we can see how he used architectural skills as well as a lot of geometry. Rivera was a very skilled painter, and as José Vasconcelos says, "everything could be forgiven to Diego because he knew how to paint with exact drawing and perfect coloring when he wanted" (Vasconcelos 227).

Mural Art:

The birth of Mexican mural art in the 1920's was one of the most revolutionary events the government has done for the country because it recognized the power of political art. The new regime had a general consciousness of the power of art as an agent of change and subversion. The movement of Mexican mural art was a new kind of Modernism, it did not use the modern styles, like cubism and surrealism. Instead, its innovative quality was to go back to realism to express revolutionary thoughts. The style used in them was in many ways a contradiction. As Octavio Paz says "The Mexican mural movement on the one hand is the consequence of European artistic movements of the early years of the century; on the other, it is a response to those movements a negation of them as well" (Paz 327). It is a common quality of rebellion in art to criticize by using the elements of what is being criticized. In Europe, modernism was a movement against the established rules of how to create art. In Latin America, however, modernism was also influenced by the social revolutions occurring in many Latin American countries, such as Mexico. In the midst of social chaos, Art served a social function to communicate the ideas of the revolution to the people . As Kalstrom explains:

"The impact of the Mexican Revolution was immense, and the activities of the Mexican mural painters in interpreting and disseminating the ideals of the Revolution, in promoting the idea of an art for the people, and in helping to realize a cultural nationalism under revolutionary conditions were felt far beyond Mexico itself, and were important factors in contemporary cultural and artistic debates"(Kalstrom 125).

This positive attitude towards art was very much inspired by José Vasconcelos, who also formed part of the new movement called "indigenismo," which was based on the rediscovery and re-evaluation of native cultures and traditions, often articulated in terms of social protest (Dawns 195).

Diego gets involved in mural art:

Diego arrived in Mexico on July of 1921 and met José Vasconcelos right away. Vasconcelos was a philosopher in charge of the Ministry of Education, and part of the new regime after the revolution. He had very innovative ideas on how to change the educational system in Mexico. One of these ideas was the creation of murals on public buildings so that art could be shared with the masses. The themes of the murals would try to portray Mexican identity. Vasconcelos sent a couple of important artists, Diego Rivera among them, to travel around the country to collect sketches of the daily life of peasants and indigenous people. At his arrival, in 1922, Diego was assigned his first mural at the National Preparatory School. This first mural was called "Creation."


For "Creation," the minister of education wanted "a composition that would symbolize the potential fusion of native indigenous tradition with the moral imperatives of the Judeo-Christian religion and the intellectual standards of Hellenic civilization (Helms 237). To fulfill this idea, Diego tried to combine indigenous figures with his Italian studies (Helms 237). Diego did not like "Creation" because, on his view, it did not portray well the Mexican character. It was based too much on classic European style.

Creation, 1922-1923
Encaustic and Gold Leaf
Mexico City, Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, Anfiteatro Bolívar

The symbolism of the mural represents the emergence of man (at the center) who has his arms open to represent sacrifice and offering; the standing figures represent the theological virtues: Charity, Hope and Faith; the rest of the figures are knowledge, erotic poetry, tradition, tragedy, justice and strength; the mestizo couple represents the fusion of racial strains. The mural was inaugurated on March 9th of 1923 (Helms 237).

Guadalupe Marín:

Portrait of Lupe Marín, 1938
Oil on Canvas
67 7/16 x 48 1/2 inches
Museo de Arte moderno, INBA, Photograph:Javier Hinojosa

Diego's second wife was Guadalupe Marín of Guadalajara. Diego and Lupe were introduced by Concha Michel, the famous singer. About the way in which they met, Diego recalls that Concha wanted to be his lover but she could not be because she was married. In order to take away the temptation of an affair with him she decided to find for him a woman who would be "handsomer, freer and braver" than her. (Rivera,140) Diego loved and admired Lupe. He also loved her body, which he painted in many of his work (in the Chapingo murals for example). In his biography he refers to her as a "beautiful, spirited animal", with hair that "looked more like that of a chestnut," with hands "that had the beauty of tree roots or eagle talons" (Rivera 140). The problem with Lupe for Diego was her jealousy and possessiveness, which, added to the fact that Diego was not a faithful husband created all kinds of uncomfortable fights. Their relationship ended before Diego left to go to Russia in 1927.

Frida Kahlo:

Frida Kahlo was Diego's third and most important wife. She was a mestiza of European (German) father and Mexican mother. Her life was full of suffering from the beginning to the end. She had polio at age six; she had a horrible accident at 18 which caused her all kinds of problems forcing her to go through at least 30 operations. Her marriage with Diego was also a cause of anguish due to Diego's multiple affairs.
Frida was also a painter and she is now considered as important as the Mexican muralists. Her paintings were mainly self- portraits in which she was able to express her pain. Her style was known as "mexicanismo," full of bright colors and Mexican details. Some people call her a surrealist although she says that what she paints is her own reality. Diego described her paintings as revealing "an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true serenity with a fundamental plastic honesty and artistic personality of their own" (Rivera 169).

Even though Diego's and Frida's marriage was difficult at times due to Diego's infidelities, it was based on true love. In his biography, Diego tells, right before his death, that he realized that the only worthy thing in his life was his love for Frida. They always respected and admired each-other and over all had the most wonderful friendship.


Diego was an absolute atheist. He did not believe in God and made this very explicit in many of his murals. His lack of belief on religion comes from a very early age. Since he was three years old he was known as "the little atheist," and he continued to be one until the last days of his life. For example, he wrote in his mural at the Alameda Central "Dios no existe"and caused a huge controversy in Mexican society. Catholic students damaged the image of Diego as a boy and tried to erase the "insulting" words (Rochfort 175).

Diego did not represent religious images unless they were useful as social observations. For Vasconcelos, the fact that he did not paint religious topics would keep Diego out of the catalogue of the great artistic figures of all time because his message was social and not spiritual (Vasconcelos 228). The most that he came close to portray religious messages was at the murals in
Chapingo , where his images functioned as a catechism exhorting a new generation of Mexican farm workers and agricultural planners to uphold a modern nationally, constructive, self-respecting way of life, based on the credo "exploitation of the land, not of man"(Helms 258).

The Liberated Earth with Natural Forces Controlled by Man, Universidad de Chapingo, 1926
State of Mexico. Fresco. 5,98/6,08x24.12m


Rivera was always playing with the contradictions of his own existence, starting with the fact that he was on the side of the oppressed without being oppressed. Diego came from a middle class family, had a very good education, and was friend of many rich and influencing people. Vasconcelos gives us a good example of Rivera's contradictions when he writes, "The whole intention of the mural at the Cortes's palace was to denigrate what the Spaniards did to America. Diego himself was ninety percent Spaniard so he was criticizing his own nature in the frescoes" (Gracía 227). Furthermore, the mural at the Cortes' palace was paid by Dwight Morrow, a North-American ambassador who was considered one of the most terrible enemies that Mexico has ever had (and also a total capitalist). This is a good example of how Rivera was a communist and a nationalist but he would let his ideological opponents to economically support his revolutionary work. For many, this put in doubt the integrity of his ideals financially.

This kind of contradictions brought him a lot of problems. Many times Diego had to erase part of a mural because one of the figures opposed the ideology of the person who was sponsoring it. In general, Diego would make these changes because he loved painting and he understood that sometimes he had to give up some of his ideas to be able to paint.

Communist party:

Rivera was an active member of the Communist party and he started, with José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, the "Sindicato Nacional de Pintores." His participation in the party, however, was very influenced by his activities as a painter. Diego tried to express his communist ideas through his paintings and in some way, this made him a symbol for communism. For this reason all his actions would be closely watched by the party. The communist party was very anti-government and Diego's commissions were mostly government-funded, which made him a doubtful communist. In September of 1926 he was expelled from the Mexican communist party for having accepted to be the director of the San Carlos Academy of Art. (He was granted this job by the government). Even though he tried many times, he was never accepted back into the party.

National Palace:

In February of 1934 Diego started the murals of the National Palace in Mexico city. This would become one of his most important works. This mural was commissioned in 1929 during the presidency of Emilio Portes Gil . The topic of this mural is the history of Mexico from the fall of Teotihuacan, about A.D. 900 to the beginning of the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas in 1935. The mural of the National Palace is considered "One of the most compendious visual displays of historical material in near human scale in the history of art (Helms 262).

" The different frescoes are organized in two parts: "From the pre-Hispanic civilization to the conquest and "From the conquest to the future" (Helms 226). "He chose to introduce his chronological narrative with a mythological version of ancient life and religion in the valley of Mexico, presented from the social revolutionary perspective that is indissociable from Mexico's historical experience and its new consciousness as a self-governing people" (Helms 226).

The Great City of Tenochtitlán
Mexico City, National Palace
From Conquest to 1930, Central Arch Detail, 1929-1935, Fresco
Mexico City, National Palace, Central Arch

. The theme symbolizes the indigenous origins and the revolutionary tradition of Mexico. One of the panels shows the Pre-colonial life of the Aztecs with images of their main social activities, such as dance, agriculture and religious ceremonies. On another wall Diego represented "Mexico today and tomorrow" where he used images of peasants, workers and Marxist unions to show foreign Capitalism as the roots of social evil (Helms 226). In the nine main frescoes he narrates the cultural and agricultural Mexican achievements that have benefited the world. The images alone portray his revolutionary thoughts, which at the time were very influenced by his trips to the United States (i.e. Capitalism seen as an evil force). These images unify Diego Rivera's different styles in what would become his personal style of painting.


Frida dies on July 13 of 1954. This marks the start of Diego's own death. In 1955 he is diagnosed with cancer but he keeps working on his murals. On July 29th, almost a year after Frida's death he marries Emma Hurtado, his agent since 1946. He is hospitalized in Russia and recovers completely from cancer. However, in September of the same year he suffers a blood clot and phlebitis, which paralyzes his right arm. He keeps working in some paintings and in decorating the house of his friend Dolores Olmedo. On November 24th of 1957 Diego Rivera dies of heart failure in his San Angel studio and wills his art to the Mexican Nation.

Day of Dead - The Offering, 1923-1924
Mexico City, Secretaría de Educación Pública, Court of Fiestas


In 1944 he starts the construction of the Anahuacalli museum-studio in San Angel for his private collection of prehispanic artesanies (the largest in the world). Diego collected all this prehispanic figures through out his life. Lupe and Frida recall that sometimes Diego would prefer to spend his money in an idol rather than on food or rent. Diego died before the completion of the museum and left his friend Carlos Pellicer in charge of finishing the building.

Zapatista Landscape
(The Guerrilla), 1915
Oil on Canvas
57 3/32x 49 1/4 inches
Marte R. Gómez- INBA Collection
Museo Nacional de Arte
Photograph: Javier Hinojosa

Sailor at Lunch
(Navy Rifleman), 1914
Oil on Canvas
44 7/8 x 27 9/16 inches
Marta R.Gómez- INBA Collection
Museo Casa Diego Rivera, Guanajuato
Photograph: Javier Hinojosa

Woman at the Well, 1913
(On back of Zapatista Landscape, 1915)
Oil on Canvas
57 3/32 x 49 1/4 inches
Marta R. Gómez- INBA Collection
Museo Nal. de Arte
Photograph: Javier Hinojosa


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