Think of artists from Mexico and few names loom as large as Diego Rivera. He was a leading member and founder of the Mexican Muralist movement along with David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. His works tackled artistic explorations alongside pressing themes of social inequality, politics, and Mexican history and culture. Only his wife and artist Frida Kahlo has reached similar heights of influence and impact.
In these two paintings, Rivera translated his unique style and explorations onto a more accessible format. “Mujer con alcatraces” features one of his most iconic symbols – the calla lily (alcatraz in Spanish). The painting centers on an Indigenous flower vendor, a common figure in Rivera’s paintings. The artist combined references to pre-Colombian art to heighten the thematic meaning of his works. In focusing on an Indigenous woman and her labor, Rivera comments on the history and culture of Mexico, particularly the overlooked place of Indigenous groups. Although associated with Mexico, the calla lily is a product of colonization, as it is native to Southern Africa. A symbol of modernism due to its sculptural and geometric forms, Rivera’s use of the flower is layered and nuanced combining modernism with history, labor with beauty. These paintings are a vision of Mexico’s past and a future he hoped to help shape. Other artists of the time that would utilize the flower include Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, and Edward Stiechen. It was a calla lily painting, “Flower Day”, that would be Rivera’s first painting to enter a public collection in the United States.
At the opposite end of the economic spectrum is Rivera’s portrait of Enriqueta Dávila. Nevertheless, Rivera asserts a Mexicanidad, a quality of Mexican-ness, in the work along with his strong feelings towards the sitter. Moreover, this painting is unique amongst his portraiture in its use of symbolism, giving us a strong if opaque picture of the relationship between artist and sitter.
Enriqueta, a descendent of the prominent Goldbaum family, was married to the theater entrepreneur, José María Dávila. The two were close friends with Rivera, and the artist initially requested to paint Enriqueta’s portrait. Enriqueta found the request unconventional and relented on the condition that Rivera paint her daughter, Enriqueta “Quetita”. Rivera captures the spirit of the mother through the use of duality in different sections of the painting, from the floorboards, to her hands, and even the flowers. Why the split in the horizon of the floorboard? Why the prominent cross while Enriqueta’s family is Jewish? Even her pose is interesting, showcasing a woman in control of her own power, highlighted by her hand on her hip which Rivera referred to as a claw, further complicating our understanding of her stature.
This use of flowers, along with her “rebozo” or shawl, asserts a Mexican identity. As seen in “Mujer con alcatraces”, Rivera was adept at including and centering flowers in his works which became a kind of signature device. The flowers show bromeliads and roselles; the former is epiphytic and the later known as flor de jamaica and often used in hibiscus tea and aguas frescas. There is a tension then between these two flowers, emphasizing the complicated relationship between Enriqueta and Rivera. On the one hand, Rivera demonstrates both his and the sitter’s Mexican identity despite the foreign root of Enriqueta’s family but there may be more pointed meaning revealing Rivera’s feelings to the subject. The flowers, as they often do in still life paintings, may also refer to the fleeting nature of life and beauty. The portrait for her daughter shares some similarities from the use of shawl and flowers, but through simple changes in gestures and type and placement of flowers, Rivera illuminates a stronger personality in Enriqueta and a more dynamic relationship as filtered through his lens.
A closer examination of even her clothing reveals profound meaning. Instead of a dress more in line for a socialite, Rivera has Enriqueta in a regional dress from Jalisco, emphasizing both of their Mexican identities. On the other hand, her coral jewelry, repeated in the color of her shoes, hints at multiple meanings from foreignness and exoticism to protection and vitality. From Ancient Egypt to Classical Rome to today, coral has been used for jewelry and to have been believed to have properties both real and symbolic. Coral jewelry is seen in Renaissance paintings indicating the vitality and purity of woman or as a protective amulet for infants. It is also used as a reminder, when paired with the infant Jesus, of his future sacrifice. Diego’s use of coral recalls these Renaissance portraits, supported by the plain background of the painting and the ribbon indicating the maker and date similar to Old Master works.
When combined in the portrait of Enriqueta, we get a layered and tense building of symbolism. Rivera both emphasizes her Mexican identity but also her foreign roots. He symbolizes her beauty and vitality but look closely at half of her face and it is as if Rivera has painted his own features onto hers. The richness of symbolism hints at the complex relationship between artist and sitter.
The two paintings showcase the breadth of Rivera’s work and his ability to showcase his technical skill along with his viewpoint. Both paintings have a push and pull of the politics and economy of Mexico expressed through cultural symbols. In “Mujer con alcatraces”, there is both a celebration of indigenous women and the critical eye of the economic opportunities afforded to them. In the portrait, he covers Enriqueta in a rebozo shawl, but its intricate and thus costly nature creates a strain between humble Mexican origins and her economic status. Whether his focus is on the manual labor by an indigenous woman or a socialite in a higher economic stratum, Rivera captures the spirit of Mexico within a socio-political context.
Diego Rivera, “Mujer con alcatraces” Gouache on rice paper (laid down on canvas), 1943
Diego Rivera, “Flower Day (Día de flores)”, oil on canvas, 58 x 47 ½ in., 1925, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Diego Rivera, “Portrait of Enriqueta ‘Quetita’ Dávila” featured in Life Magazine December 11, 1950
Diego Rivera, “Retrato de la señora Amparo Rugarcía de Espinosa”, 1952, Museo Amparo
Diego Rivera at the Museum of Modern Art, painting “Liberation of the Peon”, 1931
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in their home