José Clemente Orozco, along with Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, formed the celebrated triumvirate of Mexican muralists. The most dedicated printmaker of the three "giants," Orozco completed some thirty lithographs and twenty intaglios during his career, printing etchings in his own studio. Orozco spent his formative years as an illustrator drawing political cartoons for newspapers in Mexico City. Later, in New York, he was encouraged by Carl Zigrosser of the Weyhe Gallery to make lithographs in order to reach a wider audience.
Orozco was influenced primarily by native sources: the prints of José Guadalupe Posada; the expressive symbolism of his teachers in Mexico City; his work for the local press; and the horrors of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. In the early 1920s he joined the fledgling muralist movement, having completed his first mural cycle at the National Preparatory School in 1916. The Franciscan and the Indian is based on a detail from this mural. While Orozco, unlike his peers, refused to participate in the Communist party, he critiqued Spanish colonialism with this image, depicting an all-powerful missionary looming over a frail Indian, reversing the effect of what appears to be an affectionate embrace. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Orozco lived in the United States, where he painted murals in California, New York, and New Hampshire, and exhibited at the Weyhe Gallery and at Delphic Studios in New York, both of which published his prints.
Returning to Mexico City to complete a mural commission, Orozco developed an increasingly loose and expressive style from the mid-to-late 1930s, incorporating caricature and satire from his early political illustrations. Originally conceived as a print, The Masses later served as the basis for a black-and-white mural in the Gabiño Ortíz Library in Jiquilpan, Mexico.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Harper Montgomery, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 125.