Diego Rivera Biography

For Diego Rivera, art and politics were inseparable. Rivera believed art should express the history and desires of the people, and that art should be available and accessible to all people. Diego Rivera's murals helped him to accomplish his goal, as these large-scale works were placed in public buildings, but this artwork was also often controversial as the pieces were overtly political. In modern times, Diego Rivera is often best known for the details of his personal life, including his marriage to Frida Kahlo. No biography of Diego Rivera would be complete without a mention of this tumultuous marriage, and its impact on both the artwork by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, a professional dialogue that would change the course of Mexican painting forever.


Diego Rivera was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1886. He was born as a twin, although his brother, Carlos, would die less than 2 years later. The Rivera family was relatively wealthy, and able to support Diego's artistic impulses. At 3 years old, Rivera began to draw and sketch, often drawing directly upon the family's furniture and the walls of their home. Diego's father soon built the child a workroom with canvas-covered walls, so Diego artwork could continue without ruining the home.

In 1897, Diego Rivera began studying at the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City. Here, he learned how to utilize three-point dimensions in his work, and honed in drawing skills. These fundamentals would reappear in Diego Rivera paintings and murals the artist would create later in his career.


In 1909, Rivera fulfilled a life-long dream of moving to Europe to study art. Here, he would be exposed to Impressionism, and would toy with this technique in his paintings. He would be most influenced by the Cubist painting movement, however, and would become highly skilled in this technique. Each Diego Rivera painting from this time period, including Motherhood and The Architect show Rivera experimenting with color, planes and fragmentation, looking at an object from multiple perspectives and fracturing the colors in a truly Cubist style. Rivera also traveled to Italy to learn how to paint in a fresco style, a technique the Diego Rivera murals would utilize.

Murals in Mexico

In 1923, Diego Rivera moved back home to Mexico, and began to apply his fresco style to multiple murals. For Diego Rivera, murals were an ideal art form as they were large in scale and allowed the artist to apply large swathes of color in sweeping bands, but they were also typically easy for the public to visit and admire, as murals are not often buried in museums and private collections. These murals, including Creation in 1922 and frescoes at the Ministry of Education Building were well-received and added to Diego Rivera's fame.


In 1929, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were married. Kahlo was 20 years younger than Rivera and the two had a stormy relationship, including frequent fights and breakups. They would, however, influence one another's art quite profoundly. Kahlo's art was quite personal in nature. She painted herself, and her inner life. This may have encouraged Rivera to, in turn, move from safe images of people in typical poses to images of people striving for a goal, surrounded by provocative iconography. Diego Rivera paintings would become quite political. Kahlo's paintings would become, also, more provocative and political, as well as more colorful, as a result of her exposure to Rivera. Diego Rivera murals would change and grow as a result of this collaboration.

United States Murals

In the 1930s and 40s, Diego Rivera painted several murals in the United States. The Diego Rivera Detroit Industry mural, completed in 1932, depicts industrial workers in the United States. The mural contains several images that are Marxist in tone, implying that all people are interconnected in some way, from the worker developing the product to the doctor who immunizes the worker to the spectators who are viewing the mural. There are no individuals here. The piece was originally considered propaganda, and many people wanted it destroyed. But the Diego Rivera Detroit Industry mural is now considered the artist's most important work.

Rivera would take more risks with his next mural. Man at the Crossroads, completed in 1933 contains images of Lenin and other controversial political figures. This caused an extreme outcry from the public, and the murals themselves were destroyed in 1934.

Back Home

Rivera moved back to Mexico in 1934, and became more and more political. He befriended Leon Trotsky a Marxist theorist from Russia who was exiled from the country. He executed many more murals that supported his Marist theories, including a copy of the destroyed Man at the Crossroads mural. Rivera's marriage to Kahlo would be rocky during this period, and they would divorce and remarry in 1940. 

In 1944, Rivera would complete a mural celebrating advances in the study of heart disease for the National Institute of Cardiology in Mexico City. These murals are on two facing panels, one predominantly blue in color and one predominantly red in color, highlighting the circulation of blue deoxygenated blood and red oxygenated blood. The progress of learning is shown in these panels to be slow, and dependent on the works of many, many people, which places this Diego Rivera mural squarely in line with the artist's political beliefs.

Diego Rivera murals would continue to depict inflammatory historical figures, including Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tsetung. One mural contains the phrase "God Does Not Exist," and was so scandalous that it was not shown to the public for 9 years.

Meanwhile, Diego Rivera paintings, while political, wouldn't be inflammatory to the same degree. The Diego Rivera flower vendor series of paintings depict workers weighed down and dragging by their burdens and work. Other images depicting traditional Mexican life, including La Molendera, would speak to the difficulty of living in poverty and working so hard to feed yourself and your family. These images are also quite beautiful and lovely as simple works of art, and many viewers chose to ignore the political subcontext altogether.


Frida Kahlo died in 1954. Diego Rivera remarried, and continued his work although his health would begin to fail. He would enter the hospital in 1955 for then-common treatments with cobalt. He died of heart failure in his studio in 1957.