Childhood & Early Years
Diego Rivera was born on December 8, 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico. His father Diego Rivera Acosta was of European descent while his mother María del Pilar Barrientos was part European and part Indian. Both of them were teachers. He had a twin brother named Carlos, who died in infancy.
From the age of three, he started drawing on the walls of his home. His parents encouraged this by setting up a separate room for him to pursue his artistic ventures. They also put up canvasses on the walls of other rooms.
When Diego was six years old, the family moved to Mexico City. Diego was initially enrolled at Carpantier Catholic College. Later, he was enrolled at Academy of San Carlos at the age of twelve.
Here, his training was modeled on Classical European art. He learnt the traditional techniques in colors and perspective under various masters. Among them was Gerardo Murillo, known for his defense of indigenous art and culture. Diego was highly influenced by him.
In 1906, Murielle helped Diego to get a travel grant. With that he went straight to Europe and arrived in Spain in 1907. There he studied art with Eduardo Chicharro, one of the greatest painters of that era and through him he was introduced to many eminent personalities.
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In 1909, Diego Rivera shifted his base to Paris and started his career in painting. He lived and worked in the La Ruche in the Montparnasse district. It was a residence for the struggling artists. Here Rivera had the chance to befriend many artists, who became internationally famous in the later years.
At that time, cubism had just been introduced in Paris. Eminent painters like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were using this art form to produce masterpieces. Rivera too embraced it quite enthusiastically.
However, by 1917, he came under the influence of Paul Cézanne and shifted to post impressionism; whose main features were simple forms and vivid colors. Very soon, his works began to attract the attention of the art lovers and he started holding exhibitions of his paintings at different places.
Back in Mexico
In 1920, Rivera visited Italy. Here he was greatly impressed by frescos painted by eminent artists during the Renaissance. At the same time, political events such as the Mexican and Russian revolutions also influenced his thought process to a large extent. He now wanted his works to reflect the aspirations of the people and also the culture of his homeland.
In 1921, he left for Mexico on the invitation of José Vasconcelos, an influential philosopher, writer and politician of that era. Here he was funded by the government to create murals at public places on the history and culture of Mexico.
These murals were not only aesthetic in appeal, but they also served a larger purpose. At that time, a large percentage of the Mexican population was illiterate and unaware of their country’s heritage. It was hoped that these paintings would help to enlighten them about their country’s history and culture.
In January 1922, Rivera completed his first important mural ‘Creation’ on the walls of the Bolivar Auditorium of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria. Here he used encaustic techniques, which requires color to be added to heated wax and the picture is finally drawn with the paste so formed.
However, most of Rivera’s murals were created in fresco. In this method, paintings are done on wet lime plasters and when the lime dries up, the painting becomes a part and parcel of the wall. Very soon Rivera developed a style of its own; the figures were large and simplified; colors were vivid.
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From 1922 to 1928, Rivera created more than one hundred frescos. Aztec influence was evident in many of them. Others, like the steles of the Mayan tribe, were narrative in character. Slowly and gradually, his name spread to other parts of the world.
He received invitation to visit Moscow and was commissioned to create a mural on the Red Army Club in Moscow. However, it did not really work out. In December 1929, the American Ambassador to Mexico commissioned Rivera to paint murals in the Palace of Cortés in Cuernavaca. He readily agreed.
Next in 1930, Rivera went to San Francisco and painted a mural for the Stock Exchange City Club and received a remuneration of US$ 25000. He also did a fresco work for the California School of Arts. Then from 1932 to 1933, he created twenty-seven fresco panels on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts and named them ‘Detroit Industry’.
Meanwhile, he was invited by the Rockefeller family to create a mural at the Rockefeller Center in New York. He started working on this in 1933. Named ‘Man at the Crossroad’, it created furor because it contained a portrait of Vladimir Lenin. Since Rivera refused to remove it he was asked to leave and his commission to paint at Chicago World Fair was cancelled.
In 1934, Rivera recreated ‘Man at the Crossroad’ in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. However, after this he did not receive any major commission for a long time. He therefore, concentrated on paintings. Finally, on June 5, 1940, he was invited by Pflueger to paint a ten-panel mural for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.
Rivera accepted the commission and painted ‘Pan American Unity’ while the expo was running. This made him the biggest draw of the show. The mural was finally completed on November 29, 1940. As remuneration, Rivera received US$1,000 per month and the same amount as travel expense.
From 1945 to 1951, Rivera worked on a series of murals in Mexico City. Titled ‘The Pre-Hispanic Civilization to the Conquest’ it was one of his last major works. His last mural on this series was ‘Popular History of Mexico’.
’The Detroit Industries’ is one of Rivera’s most important works. On two of its main panels Rivera has depicted laborers working at the River Rouge Plant of the Ford Motor Company. Other panels depicted advances in various other scientific fields. However, all of them together portrayed the unity between different actions and ideas.
’Unión de la Expresión Artistica del Norte y Sur de este Continente’ or ‘The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent’ is another of his important work. It is more popularly known as the ‘Pan American Unity’. Through these paintings Rivera had tried to depict the union of US technology with Mexico’s ancient civilization.
Personal Life & Legacy
Diego Rivera married Angelina Beloff in the end of 1909. Their marriage was not a happy one and Rivera was not at all a loyal husband. The couple had one child named Diego, who died early out of lung complication. Rivera went back to Mexico in 1921 and their marriage was annulled soon after.
While he was still married to Beloff, Diego had a relationship with cubist painter Marie Bronislava Vorobieff-Stebelska. Their daughter Marika was born on November 13, 1919.
In June 1922, Rivera married model and novelist Guadalupe Marín. By her, Rivera had two daughters; Ruth and Guadalupe Rivera. However, this marriage did not last either.
Diego Rivera married painter Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón, later known as Frieda Kahlo de Rivera, on August 21, 1929. Since both of them had violent tempers and numerous extramarital relationships; the marriage failed to work. They divorced in November, 1939 but remarried the very next year in December 1940 and stayed married until her death on July 13, 1954.
One year after the death of Kahlo, Rivera married his agent Emma Hurtado on July 29, 1955. However, he did not live long after this marriage. Most probably he was suffering from cancer and the doctors could not do anything about it. He finally died of heart failure on November 24, 1957 in Mexico City.
Rivera is remembered even today as one of the greatest artists the world has ever known. His childhood home has been turned into a museum. His works are now being preserved in different museums across the continent.
Barbara Kingsolver's novel, ’The Lacuna’ centers around the life of Rivera and his friends Leo Tolstoy and Frida. Besides, films like ‘Cradle Will Rock’ and ‘Frida’ also pay tribute to the great muralist.