Rivera is born in Guanajuato, Mexico, on December 8, 1886. He demonstrates his artistic talent early. In 1897 he begins classes at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (ENBA; National School of Fine Arts), formerly known as the Academia de San Carlos, the oldest art school in Latin America. Rivera enrolls as a full-time student the following year. Granted a scholarship from the governor of Veracruz, Rivera sails to Europe in 1907, where he will live for the majority of the next 14 years. He spends most of his time abroad in Paris, eventually becoming a successful member of the European avant-garde. Yet even while far from Mexico, Rivera remains informed of events back home. Press coverage and personal accounts from friends and colleagues bring him news of the Mexican Revolution, a conflict that lasted more than a decade and killed more than a million Mexicans.
Eighteen months after declaring his candidacy for president of Mexico, Álvaro Obregón takes office in December. His presidency initiates a period of reconstruction after the nation's bloody civil war.
Faced with the question of how to breathe new cultural life into the nation, José Vasconcelos delivers a speech upon being appointed director of the Universidad Nacional de México (National University of Mexico), urging the country's intellectuals to "leave your ivory towers to sign a pact of alliance with the Revolution." Vasconcelos, the writer Alfonso Reyes, and Alberto Pani, Mexican ambassador to France, reach out to Rivera in hopes of recruiting him to their campaign to forge a new national culture in post-revolutionary Mexico.
Backed with a stipend from the Mexican government, Rivera goes to Italy to study works by Renaissance masters. During the winter of 1920 and the following spring he travels to Verona, Padua, Venice, Ravenna, Florence, Assisi, Orvieto, Rome, and Syracuse, making hundreds of sketches and studying the tools and techniques of traditional fresco painting.
In the fall of 1921, President Obregón swears in Vasconcelos as Mexico's minister of education. As part of a major, state-sponsored arts program, Vasconcelos commissions local artists to create works for the walls of prominent public buildings in Mexico City. In the process, he jumpstarts Mexican muralism, a large-scale revival of mural painting intended to communicate the nation's post-revolutionary ideals to a broad audience. Rivera, who returns to Mexico City in July, begins sketching designs for his first mural, located in the amphitheater of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory School, today the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso), in November.
In March Rivera begins work on the walls of the Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP; Ministry of Education) in Mexico City. Vasconcelos's home base is a neocolonial structure organized around two courtyards, which Rivera dubs the "Patio del Trabajo" (Courtyard of Labor) and the "Patio de las Fiestas" (Courtyard of Fiestas). When he finishes the SEP project in 1928, the artist will have covered more than 5,200 square feet (1,585 square meters) of wall space in frescoes. Attempting to sum up his 235 panel cycle, Rivera later writes that his goal was "to reflect the social life of Mexico as I saw it, and through my vision of the truth to show the masses the outline of the future."
Headed by Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Xavier Guerrero, the Sindicato de Obreros Técnicos, Pintores, y Escultores de México (Union of Mexican Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors) launches its manifesto on December 9. In militant language, the document praises rural and urban workers, the soldier, and the Indian; decries the exploitative practices of the rich; condemns aristocratic art forms; and extols what it refers to as "the expressions of monumental art as being of real use to the general public." The manifesto reappears in 1924 in El Machete, later the official newspaper of the Partido Comunista de México (PCM, Communist Party of Mexico). The union and the PCM share strong ties. Rivera had joined the party in 1922 and later became a member of its executive committee.
By May Rivera has finished the first stage of his murals for the Escuela Nacional de Agricultura (National School of Agriculture, today the Universidad Autónoma) in Chapingo, originally a Jesuit hacienda outside of Mexico City. The project, completed in 1927, includes fresco cycles in the school's administrative building and new auditorium, located in what had been the hacienda's chapel. The busy months Rivera splits between the SEP and the Escuela Nacional de Agricultura in 1924 coincide with the end of Obregón's presidential term. Plutarco Elías Calles, his handpicked successor, is elected president and enters office in December.
On April 26, 1925, Rivera submits a letter of resignation from the PCM after his relationship with other members becomes strained. Ignoring substantive differences, Bertram Wolfe, the artist's friend, colleague, and future biographer, later blames tensions in the group on the fact that Rivera is so deeply involved in his painting commissions that he frequently misses party meetings and events. Rivera rejoins the PCM in July 1926, this time taking to political activism with impressive vigor. During the next several years he will head numerous committees and lend his voice to protests against U.S. expansion in Mexico, U.S. intervention in Central and South America, and a variety of other causes.
In the fall Rivera travels to the Soviet Union as part of an official delegation of members of the PCM to participate in celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. His fame as a North American Communist is such that Rivera is invited to watch the festivities from a platform on Lenin's mausoleum, not far from Josef Stalin. On November 24, just weeks after the anniversary festivities, Anatolii Lunacharsky, the Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment, offers the artist a contract to create murals for Moscow's Red Army building. Statements from Lunacharsky hint at additional painting projects for Rivera in the Soviet Union; these never come to pass.
Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (future director of The Museum of Modern Art) and his friend and fellow scholar Jere Abbott (future associate director of the Museum) meet Rivera in January while visiting Moscow. The three see one another regularly over the next six weeks.
While in Moscow, Rivera teaches classes, gives a lecture at the Komakademiia (Communist Academy), and contributes to art and literary magazines. In March he signs the manifesto of the group Oktiabr' (October), along with 28 Soviet artists, photographers, filmmakers, and architects. Oktiabr' proposes five key areas of activity: rational architectural planning and construction; the artistic design of objects for mass consumption; the design of centers for a "new collective way of life," including clubs, reading rooms, and canteens; the organization of mass festivals; and art education. In early summer Rivera leaves Russia suddenly and without notifying his colleagues and friends. The exact reasons for his departure remain unclear.
In January the Weyhe Gallery, which first showed Rivera's works in 1927, mounts an exhibition of his paintings and drawings that receives considerable press coverage. The New York Evening Post declares that it "leads one to the conclusion that a pilgrimage to Mexico should be a part of art education." In the same month his works also appear in an exhibition of modern Mexican art at the Rockefeller-funded Art Center in New York. In March the Art Center also hosts an exhibition of folk art from Mexico, organized by Rivera's agent, Frances Flynn Paine.
By August, Rivera is working again at the Secretaría de Educación Pública. He finishes his final series of panels at the site, together known as the Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution in the fall. The artist's return to Mexico coincides with major changes to the nation's political landscape. On July 17 Obregón, recently reelected president, is assassinated. Calles will maintain power through 1934, operating behind the scenes to control Mexico during the tenures of three puppet presidents, a period known as the Maximato. In June of 1929 Mexico's authoritarian government shuts down the offices of the PCM's central committee and the headquarters of El Machete, effectively forcing the party underground until it recovers its legal status under President Lázaro Cárdenas in 1935.
In the summer Rivera starts work on his murals in the stairwell of Mexico City’s Palacio Nacional, a cycle he will not finish until 1935. Together titled Epic of the Mexican People, the murals combine historical references, mythology, and invention, offering an epic journey through Mexican history.
Rivera meets with Dwight Morrow, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, in July. In September, the artist formally accepts a commission from him to create murals at the Palacio de Cortés in Cuernavaca. In December, Rivera begins sketching and preparing the walls for his History of the State of Morelos: Conquest and Revolution.
While finalizing plans with Morrow, Rivera is expelled from the PCM. The party has multiple grievances against him: Rivera is working for the Mexican government and thus, in the committee’s eyes, colluding with an anti-Communist regime; he is also negotiating a project with Morrow, a prominent official out to protect U.S. interests in Mexico. Factional struggles within the party likewise play a part in Rivera’s dismissal: he is at best ambivalent about the PCM’s demands for Stalinist orthodoxy. On December 19 Rivera signs a statement denouncing his expulsion and announces his sympathy for the internationalist opposition to Stalin.
On August 21 Rivera marries the artist Frida Kahlo in a small civil ceremony in Coyoacán, Mexico.
On November 7 The Museum of Modern Art opens in New York. Rivera’s friends Barr and Abbott are named the Museum’s director and associate director, respectively; Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a major collector of Rivera’s work, is among its founders. In an early brochure for the Museum, Barr writes that it will collect and exhibit “the most important living masters, especially those of France and the United States, though eventually there should be representative groups from England, Germany, Italy, Mexico, and other countries.” Six months after MoMA’s opening, Paine writes to Rivera to inform him that the heads of the Museum are excited about his upcoming solo exhibition.
Rivera and Kahlo arrive in San Francisco on November 10 to begin work on his mural at the Luncheon Club of the new San Francisco Stock Exchange building. They are greeted with an exhibition of Rivera’s work at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, his first large-scale show in the United States. Rivera completes designs for his Luncheon Club mural, Allegory of California, in December. In the spring of the following year, he will finish a small mural at the home of Sigmund and Rosalie Stern in Atherton, California, and a large mural at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute).
The exhibition Mexican Arts opens at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in October. A mix of pre-Columbian, colonial, and modern objects, it showcases Mexican muralism through works by Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Siqueiros, and includes Rivera’s first portable mural, Market Scene, commissioned by Elizabeth Morrow as a gift for her husband, Dwight Morrow.
On July 2, a day before her departure for Mexico, Paine writes to Barr. Her concern is Rivera’s upcoming MoMA exhibition, but she mentions another potential New York project for the artist: “I had a very satisfactory talk with Mr. Raymond Hood [ . . . ] to discuss further the frescoes in the Radio Center.” Hood, the head architect charged with planning John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s Radio City (now known as Rockefeller Center), will break ground on the project before the month’s end.
In anticipation of Rivera's arrival in New York, his assistants prepare an improvised studio on the sixth floor of the Heckscher Building and begin constructing the metal structures that will serve as supports for his portable murals.
The SS Morro Castle docks in New York on November 13 carrying Rivera, Kahlo, Paine, and Rivera’s assistant from Mexico, Ramón Alva Guadarrama. The next day the New York Herald Tribune describes the artist’s excitement upon arrival: “As the liner approached the Battery he was as enthusiastic as a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker coming home again.”
For the following six weeks, Rivera and his assistants work furiously to finish the fresco panels that will be the centerpiece of his exhibition.
On December 23 Rivera’s retrospective opens at The Museum of Modern Art, with 149 objects on display as well as five Mexican-themed portable murals. A few days before the show opens, The New York Times calls it the “outstanding event for the week at hand.” The exhibition inspires a flurry of press coverage.
On January 6 Rivera unveils three additional portable murals at the Museum, focusing on New York themes; the new works elicit another wave of press on the artist and the show. As Rivera’s public profile grows, so do controversies over his politics and influence in the United States. Left-leaning writers, artists, and journalists loudly condemn his collaboration with North American capitalists. Not surprisingly, complaints issue from the right as well. In the March issue of Creative Art, conservative critic Henry McBride dismisses Rivera’s latest panels as “the fruit of too much reading in the communist newspapers in the railroad train on the way up [to New York].”
After Rivera's retrospective closes, the Weyhe Gallery purchases all eight panels and starts soliciting potential buyers. Later in the year, it also publishes a set of lithographs—a decidedly more portable medium—that replicate images from Rivera's famous murals in Mexico.
The ballet H.P. (Horsepower), a collaboration between Rivera and Mexican composer Carlos Chávez, premiers at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia on March 31. Rivera’s sketches for the sets and costumes, begun in 1927, enter the collection of The Museum of Modern Art in 1941 as a gift from Abby Rockefeller.
On June 10 Rivera signs a contract with the Founders Society of the Detroit Institute of Arts for a fresco cycle funded by Edsel Ford. After visiting and sketching the area’s factories, including the Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant, Rivera begins work on the mural Detroit Industry in July. In the span of nine months, he covers all four walls of the Institute of Arts’s courtyard, taking up much more wall space than stipulated in his original contract.
On November 2, while still in Detroit, Rivera signs a contract with Todd-Robertson-Todd Engineering Corporation and Todd & Brown, Inc. for a mural in Rockefeller Center's Radio Corporation of America (RCA) building. The artist starts sketching designs for the fresco right away.
Rivera and Kahlo arrive in New York in March, heralded by Rockefeller Center press releases. He soon begins work on his mural, Man at the Crossroads, in the RCA building. According to Rivera's assistants, Abby and Nelson Rockefeller follow the fresco's progress closely, unbothered by its politically charged subject matter. But when the headline "Rivera Perpetrates Scenes of Communist Activity for RCA Walls—And Rockefeller, Jr. Foots Bill" appears in the April 24 edition of the New York World-Telegram, the family is pushed to react.
On May 4 Nelson Rockefeller writes to the artist asking him to remove the detail in the mural that most catches critics' attention: an unmistakable portrait of Vladimir Lenin. Rivera refuses. The standoff captures the attention of the media.
Unwilling to capitulate to the artist's refusal to remove the offending portrait, the RCA management firm of Todd-Robertson-Todd dismisses Rivera on May 9, and his murals are promptly covered up.
Within hours of learning about Rivera's cease-to-work order, a crowd of protesters gathers outside the RCA building. In coming days, the Rockefellers receive a flood of letters from across the country, some commending Rivera's dismissal, others pleading that he be allowed to finish the mural. For reasons that remain unclear, a behind-the-scenes deal brokered by Nelson Rockefeller and others to move Rivera's RCA mural to The Museum of Modern Art falls through, and the work is destroyed over the weekend of February 10–11, 1934.
Rivera suffers serious professional setbacks as a result of the Rockefeller Center debacle. On May 12 newspapers report that his plans to create a mural for General Motors at the Chicago World's Fair have been canceled. Bertram Wolfe, however, arranges for Rivera to create a series of portable murals at New York's New Workers' School in June. Rivera, who had been paid in full for the Rockefeller Center commission, uses the money to complete a series of 21 fresco panels, together titled Portrait of America, which he finishes in December. He also completes two murals for the Communist League of America (Opposition), a U.S. branch of Lev Trotsky's International Left Opposition.
On December 26 Rivera and Kahlo arrive in Mexico and soon thereafter move into a recently finished residence in San Ángel, southwest of Mexico City, designed by architect and fellow muralist Juan O'Gorman.
The Mexican government grants Rivera permission to reproduce a revised version of the RCA mural at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. He completes the project in the winter of 1934.
Between 1935 and 1954, Rivera undertakes numerous major mural projects. In the United States, he completes Pan-American Unity in conjunction with the 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition. In Mexico, his mural projects include works for the Hotel Reforma (1936), the Instituto Nacional de Cardiología (National Institute of Cardiology, 1943–44), the patio corridor of the Palacio Nacional (1945–51), the Hotel del Prado (1947–48), the Cárcamo del Río Lerma in the Bosque de Chapultepec (1951), and the Hospital de la Raza (1953).
Rivera’s tempestuous relationship with the Partido Comunista de México continues after his return to Mexico. In 1937 he facilitates Trotsky’s entry into the country, making himself a conspicuous target for attacks from the Stalinist party. In the 1940s Rivera submits numerous appeals to rejoin the PCM, but he is not readmitted until September 1954. In August 1955 he travels again to the USSR at the invitation of the Moskovskaia Akademiia Khudozhestv (Moscow Academy of Fine Arts); while in the Soviet Union, he receives treatment for a recent cancer diagnosis. Rivera returns to Mexico in April 1956. He dies at his San Ángel studio on November 24, 1957.return to top