5 Iconic Works by Diego Rivera

Alexxa Gotthardt
Dec 24, 2019 7:30PM

Diego Rivera’s artistic talents emerged early—and with obsessive fervor. At just three years old, he was so consumed by drawing that his father transformed an entire room in the family’s Guanajuato, Mexico, home into a space for the toddler to make art, covering the walls with blackboards for Rivera’s doodles.

Several decades later, Rivera established himself as one of the 20th century’s most ambitious, boundary-pushing painters. In 1907, he left Mexico for Europe, rubbing elbows with Impressionists and budding Cubists in Spain and Paris. Picasso, in particular, became a mentor, friend, then rival of the young Rivera. Away from home, he embedded references to Mexican history, culture, and the politics surrounding the burgeoning Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) in his increasingly Cubist compositions.

Rivera settled back in Mexico in the early 1920s and began making the sprawling, contentious, social-realist public frescoes that would skyrocket him to art-world fame. With his contemporaries David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, Rivera launched Mexican Muralism, a movement lauded by preeminent art historian Meyer Schapiro in 1937 as “the most vital and imposing art produced on this continent in the 20th century.”

From then on, Rivera’s work was overridingly political, lionizing socialist ideals, revolutionary leaders, and above all, everyday people. “An artist is above all a human being, profoundly human to the core,” Rivera said. “If the artist can’t feel everything that humanity feels, if the artist isn’t capable of loving until he forgets himself and sacrifices himself if necessary, if he won’t put down his magic brush and head the fight against the oppressor, then he isn’t a great artist.”

Below, we trace Rivera’s influential and impassioned practice through five of his most iconic artworks.

Paisaje zapatista (1915)


Rivera entered art school in Mexico City at the age of 10, and by the age of 21, in 1907, he’d boarded a board ship to study in Europe. There, as the Mexican Revolution roiled back home, he became intimately acquainted with modernist art trends. (Rivera’s Mexican Muralist peers would later criticize him for abandoning their native country during a time of war.) He befriended Chaim Soutine and Amedeo Modigliani, and learned proto-Cubist techniques, like adoption of the compositional grid, from Juan Gris. By 1914, he crossed paths with Cubist master Picasso, and the two could be seen engaged in heated artistic discussions across Parisian cafés.

This 1915 painting marries Rivera’s European influences with his devotion to Mexico and increasingly nationalist ideals. A synthetic Cubist pastiche of fragmented elements drawn from Mexican indigenous culture (sombreros, serapes) and the country’s revolutionary present (rifles, artillery) fuse together and consume the center of the large canvas. Here, Rivera stakes claim to his Mexican identity and allies himself with the Mexican Revolution and the mexicanidad movement, which derided colonial influence and celebrated traditional Mexican culture and craft. Emphasizing his point, Rivera set his Cubist forms against an unspoiled, mountainous landscape, recalling a pre-colonial Mexico, and titled the piece after revolutionary icon Emiliano Zapata, who led peasant guerrilla forces into battle. The painting simultaneously acknowledges Rivera’s adoption of European modernism and predicts the increasingly political content of his future work.

In the Arsenal (1928), Secretaría de Educación Pública, Mexico City

Diego Rivera, In the Arsenal, 1928. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1920, Rivera traveled to Italy for the first time to study the country’s grand Renaissance frescoes. When he returned to a post-Revolutionary Mexico in 1921, he brought this knowledge to a new democratically-elected government, whose minister of public education, José Vasconcelos, called for a public arts program “saturated with primitive vigor, new subject matter, combining subtlety and intensity, sacrificing the exquisite to the great, perfection to invention.”

Rivera took up this charge, eschewing Cubism and channelling his political fervor into social-realist murals across Mexico City. “Gone was the doubt which had tormented me in Europe,” Rivera later recalled. “I now painted as naturally as I breathed, spoke, or perspired.” His first major commission spread across the walls of the capital’s Secretaría de Educación Pública. The 117-part fresco took shape over nearly 10 years, starting in 1922.

Labors of the Mexican People depicts Mexican farmers, industrial workers, teachers, and artisans at work. But it is The Ballad of Proletarian Revolution that stands out as the project’s most renowned fresco. This cycle represents scenes of revolutionary conflict including, In the Arsenal, which portrays rebel leaders, Rivera’s creative community, and everyday Mexicans. “For the first time in the history of monumental painting, Mexican muralism ended the focus on gods, kings, and heads of state,” Rivera wrote. “For the first time in the history of art, I repeat, Mexican mural painting made the masses the hero of monumental art.”

History of Mexico (1929–35), Palacio Nacional, Mexico City

Rivera’s Secretaría de Educación murals, as well as his next major fresco cycle, History of Mexico in Mexico City’s Palacio Nacional, boldly demonstrate the painter’s mature style: “A synthesis of cubist structure in composition, neoclassical clarity of line, and a bright palette that reflects both pre-Conquest and post-impressionist painting,” as Alejandro Anreus pointed out in Mexican Muralism: A Critical History (2012). For the Palacio Nacional commission, Rivera took up the ambitious task to represent Mexico history up to 1935—and envision its future.

Across the palace’s grand central staircase, Rivera depicts the fall of Teotihuacan (ca. 900 C.E.) through colonial rule and the revolutions of both the 19th and 20th centuries. The theme tying these diverse events together is class struggle, conveyed clearly through the fresco’s central figure, Karl Marx, who clutches a banner emblazoned with a line from the Communist Manifesto: “All of human history down to the present is the history of class struggle. Our task is not to reform existing society but rather to construct a new one.”

While the mural represents centuries of strife and repression by corrupt, colonial ruling classes, its coda is optimistic. Marx points towards something of a utopia, where farmers and factory laborers work collaboratively, exist in harmony with nature, and ultimately prosper. Later, art historian Stanton Catlin called it “one of the most compendious visual displays of historical material in near human scale in the history of art.”

Detroit Industry (1932–33), Detroit Institute of Arts

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry, 1932–33. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Man Controller of the Universe (mural) (1934), Mexico City Palacio de Bellas Artes

Diego Rivera, Man Controller of the Universe , 1934, at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite Rivera’s socialist politics, he attracted numerous millionaire supporters. In addition to Ford, socialite Abby Aldrich Rockefeller was a patron, even inviting Rivera to headline the Museum of Modern Art’s second solo show in 1931. In 1932, she also encouraged her husband, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to commission a fresco from Rivera that would spangle Rockefeller Center’s RCA Building. The theme the artist and patron agreed upon was in line with Rivera’s past work: “Man at the Crossroads and Looking with Uncertainty but with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a Course Leading to a New and Better Future.”

The Rockefellers signed off on the initial proposal: A riotous composition of marching proletariats opposing capitalist powers. At the center, stood a heroic man operating a machine, from which four cosmic ellipses, like portals into other realms, emerged. They contained images of celestial bodies and microorganisms, referencing scientific advancement. Rivera, however, made a last-minute addition that didn’t sit well with his benefactors. After receiving pushback from fellow socialists for his relationship with the wealthy Rockefeller family, he decided to make his allegiance to communism clear by incorporating a portrait of Lenin. The Rockefellers demanded Rivera remove it, but the artist wouldn’t budge, so in 1934, after months of heated debate, the fresco was destroyed.

Not long after, he recreated the composition within Mexico City’s Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, renaming it Man, Controller of the Universe.

Alexxa Gotthardt