Frida Kahlo
Biography of Mexican Wife of Diego Rivera.

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For other contemporary self-portraits
like those produced by Kahlo, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)


Early Life
Marriage to Diego Rivera
Autobiographical Paintings
Final Years


Paintings by Frida Kahlo
are widely available online
in the form of poster art.

For a guide, see: History of Art
For dates, see: History of Art Timeline.

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.


One of the most famous modern artists of Central America, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo was famous for her naive/primitive style of painting, notably her self portraits, depicting the emotional effects of her pain and semi-invalid status as the result of a 1925 traffic accident. Her painting is influenced by several schools, such as surrealism and realism, as well as symbolism. She was the wife of Mexico's famous fresco painter, Diego Rivera (1886-1957), one of the leaders of the Mexican Murals movement, while her own pictures were also influenced by Mexican folk art. She herself was a firm adherent of "Mexicanidad". In her mid-30s she was appointed Professor of art at Mexico's National School for painting, graphics and sculpture. Today, in addition to being something of a pioneer of feminist art, her work is seen by art historians as having connected the concerns of popular art with those of the modernist avant-garde.

Famous paintings by Frida Kahlo include: Self-Portrait on the Borderline (1932, Private Collection), Henry Ford Hospital (1932, Dolores Olmedo Foundation, Mexico City), What the Water Gave Me (1938, Isadore Ducasse Fine Arts, New York), The Two Fridas (1939, Museum of Modern Art, Mexico City), Suicide of Dorothy Hale (1939, Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona), and Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940, Museum of Modern Art MoMA). Kahlo remains an icon of the feminist movement, a key figure in modern art in Mexico, and is - along with Fernando Botero (b.1932) - one of the great 20th century painters of Latin-America.



Early Life

Kahlo was born in a town on the outskirts of Mexico City. At the age of six, she developed polio and never fully recovered the use of her right leg. It has also been suggested that she also suffered from spina bifida, a disease which may have affected her spinal cord and leg development. At the age of 18 Kahlo was involved in a bus accident, and suffered serious injuries, which crushed her right foot and dislocated a shoulder.

These physical handicaps were to play an important role in her art in future years. Recovering from her injuries, lying in bed for months, Kahlo's mother presented her with some paints and a mirror. Kahlo created hundreds of self portrait studies, teaching herself the skills of drawing and oil painting. She began to capture herself and her sufferings in a series of unique paintings. She once said: 'I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best'.


Marriage to Diego Rivera

At the age of 22 Kahlo married the much older painter Diego Rivera - the most famous of the trio of Mexican muralists, the two others being David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) and Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) - who had helped to launch a campaign of public art glorifying the Mexican revolution, through the use of colourful mural painting on buildings across the country. The two had met when Kahlo approached him, looking for advice on her art career. Always in Rivera's shadow, this is how she painted herself in their wedding portrait Frida and Diego Rivera (1931, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). In the painting Rivera carries brushes and a palette, while Kahlo portrays herself in a submissive manner, every inch the wife. Their marriage however was tumultuous from the start, both taking numerous lovers. They divorced and remarried again in 1940, but the second term was equally torrid. Kahlo felt she was the maternal protector of Rivera, and depicted this in her painting The Love Embrace of the Universe (1949, Collection of Jorge Contreras Chacel, Mexico City), where she holds Rivera in her arms, he is naked as a new born baby.

Autobiographical Paintings

In 1930 Kahlo became pregnant, but unfortunately due to the accident she suffered in 1925, she was forced to abort. She miscarried again two years later. The trauma of these events led to the painting of Henry Ford Hospital (1932), where she depicts herself lying in bed, bloodied surrounded by images of her aborted foetus. Other works from this period include: A Few Small Nips (1935, Collection of Dolores Olmedo Foundation, Mexico); Fruits of the Earth (1938, Collection Banco Nacional de Mexico); and What the Waters Gave Me (1938, Isadore Ducasse Fine Arts, New York). Kahlo painted with vibrant colours which displayed overtures of indigenous Mexican culture and folk art. The sadness of her works impressed artists like Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky, as well as many Surrealist artists who admired her paintings.


Kahlo recorded the people in her life with her paint brush. Her portrait art has clear influences of Symbolism, Realism and Surrealism. Two of her best known portraits of friends include: Portrait of Diego Rivera (1937, Gelman Collection, Mexico City) and Portrait of Dona Rosita Morillo (1944, Museo Dolores Olmedo Patina, Mexico City). Of the 143 paintings she created, 55 are self portraits, and often incorporate elements from the physical and mental wounds she endured. She said 'I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality'. Some of her best known self-portraits include: Self-Portrait (1937, Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington); Self Portrait with Monkey (1938, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo); The Two Fridas (1939, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City); Self Portrait with Cat and Monkey (1940, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Austin); Self-Portrait as a Tehuana, Diego on My Mind (1943, Gelman Collection, Mexico City); and Self-Portrait with Loose Hair (1947, private collection). In 1946 Kahlo painted herself as a Deer (Collection of Mrs Carolyn Farb, Houston). One of her last self portraits was Portrait of Doctor Farill (1951, private collection), where she depicted herself in a wheelchair. Kahlo also made a number of self portrait drawings, but unlike her paintings, these were mainly abstract.


It was not until 1938 that Kahlo started to sell her first works, as a result of a successful exhibition in Mexico City. The same year she met the high priest of French Surrealism, the painter and sculptor Andre Breton (1896-1966) who invited her to exhibit in Paris, an exhibition he organised with Marcel Duchamp. The Louvre purchased one of her paintings, The Frame (1937), which became the first work, by a 20th century Mexican artist ever to be purchased by an internationally renowned museum. In 1940 she exhibited The Two Fridas at the International Exhibition of Surrealism, Mexico City, and the following year her art was shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Boston.

n 1942 Kahlo was appointed professor of Mexico's National School for painting, graphics and sculpture. She also participated in group exhibitions in New York. In recognition of her achievements, Kahlo was awarded the Prize of Moses in 1945, for the category of Public Education. In 1947 some of her paintings were included in the Exhibition of Self Portraiture, held at the Palace of Fine Arts in New Mexico. In 1953 five of Kahlo's paintings were included in an exhibition at the Tate Gallery London, and the same year she had her first solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Mexico City.

Final Years

Personal tragedy struck in 1953, when due to complications her right leg was amputated below the knee. Kahlo’s last painting, which she completed shortly before she died, was a still life with watermelons. In the flesh of the melons she inscribed the words ‘Viva la Vida’: Long Life Life! Kahlo died in 1954, at the age of 47. She spent her life in pain, and wrote in her diary a few days before her death that she hoped 'the exit is joyful, and I hope never to return'. During her life Kahlo was mainly known as Diego's wife, but in recent years her works have become more famous than those of her husband. This has been partly due to her iconic status as a feminist, as well as the success of a biography and popular film of her life which reached international audiences. In 2006 Kahlo's Painting Roots (1943) sold in auction for $5.6 million dollars, the highest auction record for a Latin American artist. In 2005, the Tate Modern, London held a major retrospective of Kahlo's works.

Paintings by Frida Kahlo can be seen in many of the best art museums in the Americas, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York.

• For more biographies of Mexican painters, see: Famous Painters.
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