Word had spread of Rivera’s epic frescoes, and the artist began to receive commissions from city governments and patrons across the United States. Edsel Ford, the American car magnate, financed one of the artist’s most ambitious works, Detroit Industry. Over nine months, Rivera set up shop in Detroit, covering the Detroit Institute of Arts’s central foyer with a series of 27 paintings over four walls. It tells the story of the city’s layered history, through depictions of its workers, technological advancements, and landscapes.
While Detroit was a flourishing industrial hub at the start of the 20th century, it also experienced vast layoffs during the Great Depression. When Rivera arrived in the city in 1932, these effects were deeply felt, and the painter again emphasized the plight of workers. On the east wall, Rivera represented agriculture and natural bounty through images of a child nestled between plows and bordered by strapping nude figures. On the north and south walls, he portrayed the blossoming auto industry in depictions of machinery churning molten steel and assembly lines forging candy-red cars. And on the west wall, he expressed what he saw as the dangers of technology: tools of war that could lead to humanity’s self-destruction.
On the north wall, Rivera represented medical advancements by using the motif of a Christian nativity scene—but replacing its religious figures with contemporary doctors and patients (he modeled the mother after movie star Jean Harlow). When the frescoes were unveiled, a group of Catholics cried blasphemy and controversy erupted. Ultimately, Ford accepted Rivera’s piece, encouraged by the support of a passionate contingent of college students and factory workers who fought against censorship.