photograph of diego rivera

Artist Profile: Diego Rivera

While many people will point to Frida Kahlo as Mexico’s most famous artist, the impact of Diego Rivera on murals, both in his home country of Mexico and around the world, is still felt today. Known for his particularly large frescoes, his work helped to establish the Mexican Mural Movement in Mexican art.

Rivera grew up in Mexico and studied art from a young age. His studies would eventually take him to France and Italy, where he learned from such artists as Eduardo Chicharro, Ilya Ehrenburg, Chaim Soutine, and Amedeo Modigliani. While in Europe, Rivera witnessed firsthand the growing popularity of cubism and his own work saw a heavy cubist influence in those early days. He gradually shifted towards post-impressionism a few years later before coming back to Mexico at the request of Mexican officials. It was during this period that he and two other artists, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, started painting frescos and murals for the Mexican government.

Artwork by Diego Rivera, c.1916, Maternidad

Diego Rivera, c.1916, Maternidad

Rivera’s mural style became and important moment in Mexican history, not simply because of their political messages (much of his work dealt with Mexican history and its major revolution in 1910) but because of their incorporation of Mexican art styles. While trained mostly in Europe, Rivera used “large, simplified figures and bold colors with an Aztec influence.” His frescos also took storytelling techniques from the Maya, and many of his larger pieces tell entire stories. Combining his technical training from Europe with his Mexican heritage, his work became widely renowned and continues as an example of Mexican art to this day.

artwork titled flower carrier painted by diego rivera in 1935

Diego Rivers, c.1935, “Flower Carrier”

Diego Rivera is one of Mexico’s most famous and most notorious painters, mostly due to his volatile relationship with Frida Kahlo. Rivera met Kahlo while he was still married to his second wife, Guadalupe Marín. They met at a party hosted by a mutual acquaintance, Tina Modotti, where Kahlo asked for Rivera’s opinion about her paintings. Later, Rivero was quoted as saying Kahlo’s art had “an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity … They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own … It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.”

picture of renouned mexican artists diego rivera and frido kahlo taken in 1932

Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera, c.1932

Despite being 20 years her senior, and being a noted womanizer, the two married in a civil ceremony at the town hall of Coyoacán on August 21, 1929. They remained married for ten years but divorced due to “their mutual infidelities and his violent temper.” The divorce was short-lived, however, and they remarried in 1940, staying together until her death in 1954.

Diego Rivera is often eclipsed by his wife and life, but his art remains an important moment for muralists and street art. Despite sharing a close relationship with the Mexican government, his ability to weave a distinctly Mexican style into his work helped pave the way for a national character of art. Other countries, such as Brazil, has made similar steps, drawing on the skills of muralists around the world and infusing them with a nationalistic flavour. His work, while largely lost now, is a testament to the importance of producing and supporting local artists.