Considered one of the greatest artists worldwide, Rivera enrolled in the San Carlos Academy when he was only ten years old. His artistic inclinations astonished his teachers from the start. Following his first individual exhibition in 1907, the governor of the state of Veracruz offered him a scholarship, which Rivera used to travel to Spain. In 1908, he moved to Paris. The following year he met the Russian painter Angelina Beloff, who became his first wife. In 1910, Diego returned to Mexico briefly, where he inaugurated an individual show. He then went back to Paris. Between 1913 and 1917 he produced an important number of cubist paintings. He also explored other styles of painting.
In 1915, Diego's first child was born, however the baby only survived a few months. Angelina and Rivera were divorced briefly after that. He took what would be a decisive trip to Italy in 1921, where he was able to admire the works of the Old Masters. Rivera studied their paintings which influenced him in the development of his own personal style. In 1921, Rivera returned to Mexico to participate in the government's cultural program spearheaded by Education Minister José Vasconcelos. The purpose of this program was to promote the country's cultural wealth.
Rivera painted his first mural in 1922, in the National Preparatory School (in the auditorium known as the Anfiteatro Bolívar), the central theme being “creation.” He would continue to paint 15 more murals throughout Mexico and the United States, including his polemic work entitled “Man at the Crossroads,” painted in 1933 at the Rockefeller Center in New York City, and subsequently destroyed since it included the face of Lenin. The Anahuacalli Museum houses the original sketches of that mural.
Together with his celebrated companion Frida Kahlo, whom he married in 1929, Rivera led an intense political and cultural lifestyle. In 1944, he completed his trademark easel painting “Nude with Callalilies.” In 1949, an enormous exhibition was held in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City paying homage to Rivera, marking 50 years of his artistic work.
Frida passed away in July, 1954. With the desire to maintain her memory alive, Rivera decided to create the Frida Kahlo Museum. In 1955, he was diagnosed with cancer. Despite this illness, he continued to work unceasingly. Based on his own design, with the help of architect Juan O'Gorman, Rivera focused on building Anahuacalli. Diego Rivera was honored in 1956 when he turned 70, with a series of national and international events.
His works include many magnificent murals, over three thousand easel paintings, hundreds of drawings, sketches, graphic works and illustrations, as well as a rich legacy of writings. Diego Rivera passed away on November 24th, 1957 in his San Angel Inn home (which has been converted into the Diego Rivera House-Studio Museum). He is buried in the Rotunda of Illustrious Men at the Dolores Civil Cemetery in Mexico City.
Text: Ingrid Suckaer Translation: Lynda Martinez del Campo
1886. Diego Rivera is born on December 8 in Guanajuato, Guanajuato. His parents were Don Diego Rivera and Doña María del Pilar Barrientos. Diego spends his first years in his native town, where daily life allowed for a familiar contact with miners and peasants. This closeness to common people would have an influence on his education, and the same could be said of the progressive ideas sustained by his father, a chemist by profession, but also a rural teacher and the editor of a liberal newspaper. As a small child, Diego is very fond of drawing, and shows an extraordinary gift for it.
1892. The artist’s family moves to Mexico City, where they settle permanently.
1896. At ten, Diego is admitted at the Academia de San Carlos. His teachers are Santiago Rebull, José Salomé Piña, Félix Parra, and José María Velasco. His work reveals the mark of the great landscape painter Velasco and the clasicism of Ingres, brought to him by Rebull. It is around this time that he meets engraver José Guadalupe Posada, whose personality and work impress him deeply.
1902. The educational trend imposed by the new director of the San Carlos Academy, rigidly following photographic realism, pushes Diego out of school. He starts to work on his own.
1907. Diego’s first exhibition wins him a grant from the government of the State of Veracruz, represented by Teodoro Dehesa, to study in Spain at the Academia Madrileña. He gets acquainted with Spanish realism at the studio of painter Chicharro. Diego meets and becomes part of the Spanish artistic and intellectual elite. The artist produces a series of canvas where strong composition and great freedom make themselves evident.
1908-10. Diego lives in Paris and travels through Belgium, Holland, and England to study and work. The work of this period is influenced by his travels. He takes part in the 1910 exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants in Paris. The artist returns to Mexico for a short period of time and sets up a new show. He is a witness to the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution.
1911. Back in Europe, he stays in Paris and takes part in the Sallon d’automne. Influenced by the neo-impressionism (pointillisme), he paints several landscapes following this style during a short visit to Catalonia.
1912. He returns to Paris, and again shows his work at the Société des Artistes Indépendants.
1913. Following cubism, he produces a number of paintings competing on quality with those of the French masters. He paints views of Toledo during a short stay in the city, and then shows them at the Sallon d’automne.
1914. Shortly after the outbreak of the Great War, Rivera goes to Mallorca and then to Madrid, where his work and Marie Blanchard’s are exhibited side to side.
1915-20. He lives in Paris. These are years of intense work. Feeling uncomfortable with the restrictions of cubism, he finds in other French artists the elements that will largely build up his cultural background and artistic personae: the sensuality of Renoir, the structured balance of Cézanne, the ornamental synthesis and bright colors of Gauguin. Discussions with David Alfaro Siqueiros on the need to transform Mexican art give birth to a popular national movement.
1920-21. He travels through Italy where he studies the classics making sketches from their paintings and frescoes. He returns to Mexico enriched by his observations and the lived experience of art. José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and himself create the Painters’ Union. The Mexican Revolution presses upon him scenes and emotions that take him to create his first public murals, and through them the name of Mexico is to be linked to modern art. The Mexican people, the colors, popular celebrations, the countryside, the great Indian legacy, the tragic tones and the expectations in common people’s life are the elements used by Rivera for his art. It is upon his return to Mexico and his encounter with this country’s vigorous sensuality that his artistic personality emerges, at once singular and monumental.
1922. As the pioneer of mural painting, Diego produces his first work at the Auditorium of the National Preparatory School (Anfiteatro Simón Bolívar) inspired by a philosophical subject: the Creation. Rivera combines his work as a muralist with a rich production of drawings, watercolors, and easel paintings. It is around this time that he and Guadalupe Marín start living together; they have two daughters: Lupe and Ruth.
1923-28. He works on the frescoes at the Secretaría de Educación Pública, on which his notions about the life of the Mexican people are described.
1926-27. He paints the murals at the National School of Agriculture in Chapingo, Canto a la tierra y a los que la trabajan y la liberan (Song to the Earth and to Those who Work Her and Free Her).
1927. Invited by the Public Education Committee of the Soviet Union, he travels to that country in September, and inspired by all he could observe during the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, he produces an interesting collection of drawings, watercolors and oils.
1928. He returns to Mexico in August to finish the murals at the Secretaría de Educación Pública. He divorces Guadalupe Marín and marries painter Frida Kahlo.
1929-30. He decorates the Council Hall of the Health Department with huge symbolic nudes bearing on life and health.
1929. He paints the murals at the Cortés Palace in Cuernavaca, Morelos, expressing for the first time his ideas on the history of Mexico. He begins the monumental decorative works on the stairway of the National Palace.
1930. He moves to San Francisco and shows his easel paintings at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.
1931. He paints the stairway of the Luncheon Club in the San Francisco Stock Exchange with an allegory to all the natural and industrial riches of California. He also decorates with a fresco the house of Mrs Sigmund Tern in Fresno, California, and a wall at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco celebrating modern industry brought to building construction. His work is exhibited at the New York Museum of Modern Art, his most important exhibition up to that year in the United States. He paints four portable panels as a sample of his mural work.
1932. The Music Academy of Philadelphia presents the Horse Power Ballet; the music is due to Carlos Chávez, the scenery and costumes to Diego Rivera. After a short stay in Mexico, Diego begins the Portrait of Detroit, painted at the courtyard of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Determined to be well informed, he spends long weeks visiting factories and workshops, where he studies the machinery as well as the workers; then translates those images to that great composition, considered by the artist himself as one of his major works.
1933. He does the mural decoration of the Rockefeller Center in New York, destroyed before he could finish it because of the portrait of Lenin that was part of it. Diego paints 21 portable frescoes for the New Worker’s School.
1934. Upon his return to Mexico he does at the Palace of Fine Arts the mural originally meant for the Rockefeller Center; the world of the future dominated by men with a technical education is the central idea in it.
1935. He finishes the immense composition on the history of Mexico painted on the stairway of the National Palace, a work that had been started in 1929.
1936. He paints four portable panels for the Hotel Reforma. They were never exhibited because one of them —entitled La dictadura , The Dictatorship— satirized several politicians.
1936-40. He consacrates all of his time to easel painting. He produces landscapes of great fantasy, some remarkable portraits, and the famous black dancers’ series.
1940. Commissioned by the San Francisco Junior College, Diego paints a big mural for the Golden Gate International Exposition. On this work, he presents his ideas on the creation of a continental culture, the marriage of the ancient traditions from the South with Northamerican industrial life.
1943. He does a series of murals for the Salón Ciro’s of the Hotel Reforma.
1943-44. He decorates two walls at the National Institute of Cardiology.
1944-45. He starts a new series of murals at the National Palace bearing on life in Prehispanic Mexico.
1947-48. He paints a mural for the dining-room of the Hotel del Prado under the title Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (A Sunday Afternoon Dream at the Alameda Central), largely referring to national history, his favorite theme. Diego includes a sentence taken from Ignacio Ramírez, el Nigromante (a heroe of the Reform): “God does not exist.” Unknown hands damage the painting. The hotel administration covers up the mural hiding it from the public.
1949. The National Museum of Plastic Arts at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City is the frame for a national exhibition celebrating the 50 years of artistic work of Diego Rivera. It is the biggest of all the solo exhibitions he has been made in Mexico, with the 1,196 works, including oils, watercolors, and drawings that were shown in it.
1950. Rivera takes part in the XXV Biennal of Venice, Italy. A critic names him the “creator of the Sixtine Chapel of Mexico”, by which he meant the National School of Agriculture at Chapingo, in his opinion the most thoroughly achieved of Rivera´s mural works. The artist paints a fresco about El Tajín Prehispanic culture on the corridor of the National Palace.
1951. Rivera makes a mural project for the National Palace presenting the fruits and vegetables that Mexico brought to the world. As a founder of El Colegio Nacional, he gives a series of lectures on art and politics.
1949-51. He does sculptures and paintings in Chapultepec Park as part of a decoration project named México apaga su sed (El agua, origen de la vida), Mexico quenches his thirst (Water, source of life). He gives new life to tile work and sculpture with color stones making a huge high-relief of Tláloc, the god of water in ancient Mexico.
1952. He paints a mural entitled Pesadilla de guerra y sueño de paz (Nightmare of war and dream of peace) about the US intervention in Korea, using a mixed technique on canvas. Due to the criticism in it, the paint is censured and provokes an international scandal. Rivera decorates the outer shell of the University Stadium; he works with a technique that combines sculpture and painting using naturally colored stones. Works are cancelled, but the artist leaves the plans for the decoration to the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
1953. He decorates the façade of the Teatro de los Insurgentes with glass tiles. Using a mixed technique on canvas, he paints the mural entitled Gloriosa victoria (Glorious Victory) about the North American intervention in Guatemala; the mural is in Poland.
1954. In the Cuernavaca residence of film producer Santiago Reachi, Diego does a series of portable murals on canvas and a glass tile panel, Baño en el río (Bath in the River). His wife Frida Kahlo dies, causing him intense suffering, both physical and spiritual. He continues working on his murals at the National Palace; he develops in them a central issue in Mexican history: the arrival of the conquistadores. Two portraits of Cortés in this work provoke heated controversies. In the vestibule of the La Raza hospital Rivera paints the fresco entitled El pueblo en demanda de salud (The people asking for health).
1955. In June, the illustrous surgeon Ignacio Millán, a cancer specialist, finds in the artist traces of the illness and recommends that he stops working to cure himself. Rivera does not follow the doctor’s recommendations and continues working hard in San Pablo Tepetlapa to the south of Mexico City, where the Anahuacalli Museum, designed by the artist himself, is under construction. He would later donate to the Mexican people the museum along with his large collection of Prehispanic art and 46,000 meters of land, where he planned on building a City of the Arts. In August he goes to the Soviet Union to see Dr. Funkin, a famous cancerologist in Moscow, who uses the cobalt pump on Diego to control the cancer that has already started to invade his body. He travels to Poland and Czechoslovakia.
1956. Upon his return from the USSR, the artist spends in Acapulco most of his time; in this port, he does a series of paintings. He lives in a house owned by Dolores Olmedo and there he leaves a decoration on the theme of Quetzalcóatl and Tláloc. By means of a trust, he legalizes the donation of the Frida Kahlo and the Anahuacalli Museums to the Mexican people. He names Dolores Olmedo, an old friend of his and the main collectionist of his work, president for life of the trust. In December he turns seventy and is given an international hommage.
1957. He organizes an important exhibition of 250 easel works. At El Batán, Dolores Olmedo’s house in Mexico City, he does a tile decoration for a shallow pond. He continues working on his plans for the corridor at the National Palace, for the National History Museum, for the Chemistry School at the National University, for the murals at the Jorge Negrete Theater and on the plan for a fresco about Zapata in the house of movie actor Emilio Fernández. He also does plans for some frescoes and sculpture-paintings at the Anahuacalli Museum. He dies in Mexico City the 24 of November and is buried at the Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres.