In Liberation of the Peon, Rivera developed a harrowing narrative of corporal punishment. A laborer, beaten and left to die, is cut down from a post by sympathetic revolutionary soldiers, who tend to his broken body. Peonage—a system of indentured servitude established by Spanish colonizers, under which natives were forced to work the land—persisted in Mexico into the 20th century. The mural offers the injustice of earlier social and economic conditions as a rationale for the Mexican Revolution.
Liberation of the Peon is based on a panel from Rivera’s mural cycle at the Secretaría de Educación Pública in Mexico City. There, the chilling scene captured in this mural panel is coupled with The Rural Schoolteacher, which touts recent efforts to expand state-run education programs and highlights the benefits of post-revolutionary reforms. Shown alone at The Museum of Modern Art, the meaning of Liberation of the Peon shifted to focus on the sacrifice inherent in revolutionary struggle.
While its subject is secular, Liberation of the Peon evokes Christian imagery, specifically the lamentation over Christ’s body after his crucifixion. The composition draws heavily on Giotto’s Lamentation at the Capella degli Scrovegni in Padua, Italy, which Rivera had studied first-hand. He shared this strategy of transforming religious imagery into revolutionary narrative with many Mexican muralists during the movement’s early years.
Before the Mexican Revolution, haciendas—vast agricultural estates owned by wealthy Mexicans or foreigners—dominated the country’s social and political landscape. Set ablaze by the rebels in the picture’s foreground, this estate, surrounded by a harsh desert landscape, appears to be located in the northern heartland of Mexico, where the Revolution was launched.
References to Mexican artistic traditions add to Liberation of the Peon’s visceral impact. Devotional imagery created during Mexico’s colonial period was often gory, emphasizing graphic violence and the wounds inflicted on Christ. In his portable mural, Rivera carefully described the individual whip-wounds that cover the peon’s broken body, underscoring the sacrifices made in the revolutionary process.
Rivera signals that the men who care for the peon’s body are revolutionaries by wrapping them in cartridge belts and equipping them with visible firearms. Comprised of mixed groups of rebels, many of whom were untrained, Mexican revolutionary soldiers lacked a single, easily recognizable uniform, and often fought in their usual work clothes.
Rivera used drawings like this cartoon for Liberation of the Peon to work out the compositions of his murals. In both study and fresco, he focused on the relationship between the figures in the group and the limp body of the peon. In order to facilitate transfer of this image, Rivera drew diagonal lines over the composition, with their intersection marking its center. These lines helped him to position the foreground figure, which is more completely finished than the rest of the drawing.