Diego Rivera Is Famed for His Murals, But His Early Paintings Also Made Art History

Tessa Solomon


June 23, 2020 5:42pm

Mandatory Credit: Photo by AP/Shutterstock (6668008a) Diego Rivera, famous Mexican mural artist commissioned to create some of the great murals at the new Rockefeller Center, is working on a huge panel in the main entrance hall of the RCA Building, in New York, on . A major controversy erupted when Rivera, an avowed communist, added the likeness of Lenin to his fresco and refused to remove it RIVERA ROCKEFELLER CONTROVERSY, NEW YORK, USA

Though celebrated as one of Mexico’s preeminent muralists, Diego Rivera’s path to fame was defined by long-overlooked experimentation. Born in 1886, he lived through unsettled, revolutionary times, and he is best known for his pursuit of a decisive national and artistic identity for Mexico in the wake of the country’s revolution, which ended in 1920. As a student at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, he chafed against professors who actively discouraged representations of Mexican culture; classmates sometimes spent months reproducing classical paintings. After graduation in 1906, Rivera traveled from Mexico to Spain to Paris and back again, searching among the European schools for a signature style of his own.

By 1915, he had dabbled in the dramatic coloring of the Old Spanish Masters, the bold brushstrokes of the Post-Impressionists, and most fruitfully, the Cubists. Rivera, with his towering figure and ambition, was often adrift socially, but in Paris he found brief kinship among Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris. He later wrote of his first studio visit with Picasso, “After I had shown Picasso these paintings, we had dinner together and stayed up practically the whole night talking. Our theme was Cubism—what it’s trying to accomplish, what it had already done, and what future it had as a ‘new’ art form.” The convergence of avant-gardes and rising xenophobia in Paris—sympathy for expats in the city was waning—helped Rivera step outside the shadow of his influences, resulting in one of his greatest contributions to art history: a distinctly Mexican variation of Cubism. Below is a selection of his early paintings which trace Rivera’s evolution from student to innovator.

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La Era, 1904

La Era represents Rivera’s first significant deviation from the European Realism that dominated lessons at San Carlos. In the painting, he married the rigorous lessons in composition and proportion imparted from his influential professors, Santiago Rebull and Jose Maria Velasco, and Rivera’s own emerging desire for a Mexican artistic identity. Sharp attention to detail and perspective is juxtaposed with subject matter specific to Mexico: a farm worker framed by cool mountains. Soon after completing the painting, Rivera departed for further studies in Spain.

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Diego Rivera, Self Portrait, 1907.WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Self Portrait of 1907

In this self-portrait, Rivera relaxes his prior commitment to the Realist style even further. Unlike earlier portraits, which depicted the subject’s face in warm, sharp detail, Rivera’s face is distorted by shadow—the emphasis has shifted from proportion to emotion. His palette of reddish brown, black, and sand, coupled with abrupt passages in shading, is reminiscent of late 19th-century European styles. Throughout his studies in Spain, Rivera habitually visited the country’s national museums, where he fell under the influence of Old Spanish Masters, in particular Goya and El Greco. He didn’t look fondly on this period later in life, though. He once wrote, “The inner qualities of my early works in Mexico were gradually strangled by the vulgar Spanish Ability to paint.”

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Diego Rivera, Ávila Morning, (The Amblés Valley), 1908.COURTESY MUSEO NACIONAL DE ARTE, MEXICO CITY

 Ávila Morning (The Amblés Valley), 1908

During his scholarship in Veracruz, Rivera studied with Spanish artist Eduardo Chicharro, and together they traveled throughout the country, recording scenes of urban and provincial life. Ávila Morning (The Amblés Valley) shows innovations to Rivera’s practice as it developed. In it, he depicts the Ambles Valley from a high vantage point. In contrast to his earlier landscapes, the constraints of geometry have relaxed somewhat, so that the Avila mountains gently blend into the soft sky. Below, the rolling valley is depicted in the style of Rivera’s former teacher, José María Velasco. Perspective is formed by the River Adaja, which bisects the scene and the thin tree which rises from the right. Rivera’s mastery of color is on display in the subtle variations of tone which lend the impression of early morning fog. Like another landscape painted in the period, The Street of Avila, the scene is desolate. 

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Diego Rivera, View of Toledo, 1912.WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/PUBLIC DOMAIN

View of Toledo, 1912

View of Toledo, a reimagining of El Greco’s famous landscape painting, exemplifies Rivera’s regard for the Spanish masters and Parisian modernists. Rivera depicts the city from the same vantage point as El Greco, while diverging significantly in construction and color. The flat perspective bares similarities to Paul Cézanne’s landscapes and the bold palette takes notes from Braque’s Fauvist work, Landscape at L’Estaque (1908). The vividly colored rose in the left hand corner is positioned similarly to the tree depicted in his earlier work Ávila Morning, lending some sense of depth to the scene. While Rivera would not be acquainted with Picasso for another two years, the influence of Cubism is evident in his depiction of the rocks and building in the middle right. Lacking a direct connection, his comprehension of the movement seems to be based mostly on observation.

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Diego Rivera, Adolfo Best Maugard, 1913.WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Retrato de Adolfo Best Maugard, 1913

By 1913, Rivera had relocated to Paris where he was quickly enamored by the Cubists, even claiming the movement to be “the [most] outstanding achievement in the plastic arts since the Renaissance.” He soon began to incorporate its styles into his own practice. Retrato de Adolfo Best Maugard marked Rivera’s shift from the Spanish influence to semi-Cubism. In the foreground is Mexican artist and fellow Paris expat Adolfo Best Maugard. He stands on a red balcony high above the city, which is obscured by clouds of industrial smoke. Rivera has depicted Maugard in an elegant, elongated fashion that is reminiscent of the style of Gustave Caillebotte, a French artist who was also an important patron to the Impressionists. The buildings, however, are represented in Cubist blocks and a muted palette. Maugard’s forefinger rests at the center of the far-off ferris wheel, a symbol of the city’s technological advancement. 

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Diego Rivera, Young Man in a Gray Sweater (Jacques Lipchitz), 1914.WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Young Man in a Gray Sweater (Jacques Lipchitz), 1914

Rivera, socially adrift among the Parisian artistic society, found kinship with Picasso and the two often discussed Cubist theory. At that time he was also acquainted with Spanish artist Juan Gris, who demonstrated Cubist techniques, such as how to manipulate texture through mixing sand and oil paint. Both friendships proved critical to the development of Rivera’s distinct mature style, and Young Man in a Gray Sweater was a key transitional painting. It depicts the Lithuanian sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, who Rivera bonded with in Paris over a shared experience of xenophobia. Here, the Cubist collage, portrayed in a muted color palette common to Europeans, is tentatively interspersed with fragments of a serape. 

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The Café Terrace, 1915 

While living in Paris, Rivera incorporated Post-Impressionist styles into his work, including Pointillism, the technique developed by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac in which paint is applied in small dots, not blended, to create texture. In The Cafe Terrace, Rivera uses Pointillism to accentuate the contrast in color between the bottle of green liquid, metal spoon, and camouflage tablecloth, a reference to World War I, which had reached Paris by 1915. During the creation of The Cafe Terrace, salons and galleries were suspended in the city, while the artistic crowd had largely fled for safety. Also included in the painting are allusions to Mexico, such as the cigar box in the right-hand corner which reads, BENITO JUA, a reference to Benito Juárez, the Mexican president from 1858 until his death in 1872.

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Diego Rivera, Zapatista Landscape, 1915.

Zapatista Landscape, 1915

Zapatista Landscape represents the realization of Rivera’s Mexican Cubist variation, and is today considered a masterpiece. Its title references Emiliano Zapata, a celebrated guerrilla leader of the Mexican Revolution, which had already been raging for five years, though it wasn’t associated with the painting until years after its completion. In contradiction of the Cubist tradition, Rivera strove to individualize the subject of Zapatista. A sombrero, serape, woven shawl, and rifle rise from vivid blue waters. Painted wood grain—a technique borrowed from Braque—and a wound piece of paper nailed to the canvas introduces realist elements. Mexican mountains frame the central subject in a mix of still-life and landscape. Rivera described the work as “probably the most faithful expression of the Mexican mood that I have ever achieved.”


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