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Who Was Diego Rivera?

Updated on December 3, 2012
Diego Rivera, self-portrait
Diego Rivera, self-portrait | Source

Who was Diego Rivera? You may know of his large-scale fresco murals. But, the famous Mexican artist had a colorful life in terms of his personal life, including multiple affairs and a passionate relationship with artist Frieda Kahlo. Diego Rivera was arguably one of the greatest Mexican artists.

Early Life

Diego Rivera was born in Guanajato, Mexico on December 8, 1886. His family was well-off, allowing for Rivera to be encouraged in his study of art. He showed an interest in painting at a young age.

In 1907, Rivera traveled to Madrid, Spain to study painting under Eduardo Chicharro. From there, he moved on to Paris, where he surrounded himself with many of the “it” art scenesters. During the time Rivera was in Paris, Cubism was emerging as a major movement in painting. Rivera embraced the new style of painting, attracting the attention of the art world and truly beginning his career as a painter.

In 1911, Rivera married his first wife, Angelina Beloff. They had one child, Diego, who survived only 2 years. While Rivera was married to Beloff, he had an affair with Russian Cubist painter Maria Vorobieff.

Return to Mexico

In 1921, Rivera returned to his native Mexico. The primary reason for his return was to participate in a Mexican mural project. It was through this program that Rivera painted his first major mural, Creation, which is on display in the Bolívar Auditorium of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. Murals soon became Rivera’s primary medium.

In the following year, Rivera joined the Mexican Communist Party, and he was one of the founders of the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. His politics heavily influenced his artwork. Thematically, the murals he painted during this time dealt with everyday Mexican society and the 1910 Revolution. During this time, Rivera developed his signature painting style— large figures and bold colors.

Later Work

In 1927, Rivera was invited to travel to Moscow, Russia to celebrate the anniversary of the October Revolution. During his time in Russia, Rivera was commissioned to paint a mural for the Red Army Club in Moscow. And, it was during his time in Russia that Rivera met and befriended Alfred Barr, Jr., who would become the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art. Authorities ordered Rivera to leave Russia, citing “anti-Soviet activities.”

Rivera returned to Mexico, where he divorced his second wife, Lupe Marin, whom he married in 1922. In 1929, he married Frieda Kahlo, an artist famous in her own right. He had carried on a long-term affair with Kahlo prior to his divorce from Marin. Kahlo and Rivera met when Kahlo was still an art student. Rivera and Kahlo had a tempestuous relationship fraught with infidelities by both parties. They divorced in 1939 only to remarry in 1940.

The 1930’s proved to be a busy period for Rivera. In 1930, Rivera was invited to San Francisco, California to paint for architect Timothy L. Pflueger. Rivera painted a mural for the City Club of the San Francisco Stock Exchange and a fresco for the California School of Fine Art. In 1931, Rivera had an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. And, during 1932-1933, Rivera completed a series of frescos for the Detroit Institute of Arts, “Detroit Industry.” The murals depict the struggle of the working class.

In 1933, Rivera began a mural, “Man at the Crossroads” in the Rockefeller Center. The painting was deemed controversial because it contained a portrait of Vladimir Lenin. The outcry against the painting was so strong, the mural was destroyed. However, in 1933, Rivera returned to Mexico where he was able to repaint the mural in Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1940, Rivera made his final trip to the United States. He traveled to San Francisco to paint a mural for the Golden Gate International Exposition, “Pan American Unity.”

Rivera married his long-time agent, Emma Hurtado in 1955 and died in Mexico on November 24, 1957.

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