Diego Rivera sought to capture the spirit of Mexico and, in doing so, become one of the country’s most iconic artists. Best known for his large scale murals and controversial politics, Rivera was instrumental in the birth of Mexico’s artistic Renaissance. He blended European and American elements and remade it into something distinctly Mexican. To understand Mexican art, Rivera is an essential.
Rivera showed an interest in art from a young age. As a boy, he would often draw “murals” on the walls of his childhood home. At age twelve, he studied painting in Mexico City at San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts. While there he met two major influences Gerardo Murillo and Jose Posada. Gerardo Murillo was among Rivera’s teachers. Murillo was a chief voice and transformative figure in Mexican art. He was passionate about indigenous Mexican culture. Recognizing a need for a common form of expression to unite the people, he was a strong advocate for public art. This would set the groundworks for the Mexican Mural movement, a movement that Rivera would help lead. Murals became Rivera’s favored medium because it was accessible to everyone and could not be closed off in a museum.
Another influence was Jose Posada. Posada was a political illustrator who ran his print shop near Rivera’s school. He used satire and skeleton imagery to comment on society. His famous calaveras, or skeletons, were inspired by pre-Colombian culture and served as a reminder of one’s mortality. Rivera was intrigued by Posada’s use of indigenous imagery married with politically charged meaning. This became a major aspect of Rivera’s later career. He paid homage to Posada in the mural Dream of Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park. At the focal point of the piece stands Posada’s most iconic creation — Catrina, a female skeleton wearing a high society clothes and a voluminous hat.
In 1906, Rivera traveled through Europe. There, he encountered European frescos and murals and befriended the leading artists of the day. Once he returned to Mexico, he was an established member of the international art community. The Mexican government gave him grants to paint murals of Mexico’s history and culture on public places. This initiative would later inspire Franklin Roosevelt’s Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration in America.
Rivera’s private life was filled with public controversy. An adherence to Marxism along with numerous affairs and marriages made him a hotly debated individual. Despite this, Rivera was one of the figures who defined Mexican art and is still internationally respected.