Diego Rivera
Biography of Mexican Mural Painter: Socialist Realism Style.

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Diego Rivera (1886-1957)


Early Life - Paris and Italy
Mexican Mural Renaissance
Marriage to Frida Kahlo
Visits America
Final Years



The charismatic and highly talented Mexican painter Diego Rivera, husband of Frida Kahlo (1907-54), is famous for his large-scale Mexican murals created for public spaces in the 1920s and 1930s. He mixed pre-Columbian art, Realism, Modernism (eg. Cubism) and elements of Early Renaissance frescoes into succinctly organized and controlled decorative art, with a storyteller's flair for detail. A communist artist, Rivera's larger-than-life 'socialist realism' and populist pictorial vision matched his huge size (he was more than 6 feet tall and 300 pounds in weight), as well as his huge attractiveness for women - despite being notoriously ugly. Feted during his lifetime, Rivera remains one of the all-time heroes of Latin-American art and culture, as well as a key influence in the revival of public monumental fresco painting and the Mexican Mural Renaissance. Some of his most famous murals are in the National School of Agriculture, Chapingo near Texcoco (1925–27), the National Palace in Mexico City (1929–30) and the Cortes Palace in Cuernavaca (1929–30).

For more mural images like those
produced by Diego Rivera, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.
For the top allegorical painting,
see: Best History Painters.


Early Life - Paris and Italy

Born in Guanajuato, Mexico, Rivera reportedly started sketching before he could read. At the age of 10, he began taking classes at the Arts Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City. He also learned more about Mexican art from Jose Posada, a teacher who ran a shop close to the Academy. After six years, he was awarded a scholarship to study painting in Europe. This took him to Madrid, to study under the Spanish painter Eduardo Chicharro, and then Paris where he encountered Cubism, and was struck by the paintings of modern artists like Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Paul Cezanne. In Paris, he began living with a young Russian painter by the name of Angelina Belhoff, who became his unofficial wife for the next twelve years. His friends in Paris included the Italian expressionist Amedeo Modigliani and his wife Jeanne Hebuterne, as well as the Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg, the Belarus painter Chaim Soutine, and Picasso. It was also during this period (c.1910-20) that he began to develop a 'social vision': in particular, he realized that his paintings should be enjoyed by everyone, not just rich middle-class patrons. In 1918, he travelled to Italy to study the Old Masters. During this trip he was especially influenced by Renaissance art, notably the fresco murals painted on church walls, for the enjoyment of everyone.


Mexican Mural Renaissance

In 1921, after an absence of 14 years, Rivera left Paris (and Angelina Belhoff) and returned home to participate in what would become known as the Mexican Renaissance. This began with a national program of adding mural art to public buildings. Rivera was offered an indoor wall at the University of Mexico, on which he painted Creation, one of his best-loved murals, using encaustic paint. His next, larger public art project - which he began shortly after marrying Guadalupe Marin - was a set of 120 frescoes for the courtyard walls of the Ministry of Public Education. It was this commission that brought him to the attention of the Western art world and set in motion the revival of mural painting. In addition to his political 'history painting', Rivera spent time travelling throughout Mexico, absorbing the terrain and history of the country, as well as its cultural traditions. In 1922, Rivera, with the help of Mexico's two other greatest mural painters - David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) and Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) - created the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. The same year, he joined the Mexican Communist party.

Marriage to Frida Kahlo

In late 1927, Diego took a trip to the Soviet Union - as a member of an official delegation from the Mexican Communist Party - to take part in the anniversary celebrations of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. On his return to Mexico, his marriage to Guadalupe Marin ended. Within 12 months he met Frida Kahlo, whom he married in 1929 - at which time he was appointed the director of the Department of Plastic Crafts at the Mexican Ministry of Education, a position he retained until 1938.

Visits America

In 1930-34, Rivera worked in the United States, painting a number of influential frescoes, the most important of which was a series called Detroit Industry (1932-3) at the Detroit Institute of Arts. To coincide with his presence in America, he was given a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Also, at the invitation of Nelson Rockefeller he was commissioned to paint a mural in the Radio Corporation Arts building in Rockefeller Center, a project he completed in collaboration with Ben Shahn (1898-1969), the Lithuanian-born American artist who led the Social Realism movement in America during the Depression era. Unfortunately, because Rivera included a picture of Lenin the communist leader, this work was stopped and replaced. Rivera later completed a new version of this picture (Man, Controller of the Universe) in Mexico City. In June 1940, he returned for the last time to the USA to paint a multi-panel mural for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. The mural now resides at the City College of San Francisco.

Final Years

By now his country's most famous painter, Rivera gave shelter to Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian revolutionary, in his house at Coyoacan, (Trotsky was later assassinated there in 1940), separated, divorced, and remarried Frida Kahlo, and continued painting. As well as murals he also produced a regular output of oil painting, including portraits, figures, genre-paintings, narrative pictures and still lifes. In 1947, in collaboration with Siqueiros and Orozco, he founded the Commission of Mural Painting, under the auspices of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA). However, controversy continued to dog the content of his murals, as a result of his atheism and communist affiliations. In 1954, his wife Frida Kahlo died. The following year Rivera married his art dealer, Emma Hurtado, but he had only two years to live. In November 1957, he died of heart failure in his San Angel studio.

One of the great 20th century painters, Diego Rivera is represented in many of the best art museums throughout the world, including the Hermitage St Petersburg and the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York.

• For more biographies of Mexican muralists, see: Famous Painters.
• For details of major art periods/movements, see: History of Art.
• For more information about modern Mexican painting, see: Homepage.

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