Rivera with his train, 5 years old

His Life
Born at the end of the industrial revolution in 1886, in the silver mining town, Guanajuato, Rivera claimed that his early years were spent watching men working with technology. Diego Rivera's family lived in a stone house that was maintained during the height of Guanajuanto's silver mining business. By the time Rivera was born, the town was in decline and when he was five years old, his mother sold all of their furniture and moved the family to Mexico City. In Mexico City, Rivera became more fascinated with technology: railroads, electric street cars, and large construction projects. His family playfully called him "the engineer" because he enjoyed taking his toys apart and reassembling them to see how they functioned. He also developed an interest in sketching, especially trains.

By the time he was ten, he loved art so much that he demanded that his parents get him into art school. He attended evening classes at the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts where he was trained in traditional art skills, until Santiago Rebull, dean of the school, invited him to his studio and made Rivera his apprentice. Other artists who influenced Rivera during these early years include Felix Parra and Jose Maria Velasco.

These artists taught Rivera that there was logic in almost all parts of art and encouraged Rivera to consider art as a science. Rivera's ability to understand things based on smaller components of a whole served him later as a muralist, particularly when he tackled portraying the largest industrial complex in the United States.

His Art
Like most other ambitious artists in the Americas, Rivera understood that he would need to study art in Europe. However his family was not wealthy and in order to go to Europe, Rivera's father had to convince an acquaintance to fund his journey. Still doubting whether he could afford the trip, Rivera received additional help from Rebull, dean of the San Carlos art school. He arrived in Spain in 1907 and after two dissatisfying years traveling the countryside, decided to go to Paris. In Paris, Rivera became part of a larger art community and achieved his first success as an artist, primarily through Cubism. By 1911 he had his first exhibit in Paris. In 1914, he held his first one-man show and became friends with Picasso, who supported Rivera's work until their quarrel in 1916. The Modern Gallery in New York exhibited Rivera's work in 1916, alongside works by Cezanne, van Gogh, Picasso and Braque.

One year after the assassination of Mexico's revolutionary leader, Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican government invited Rivera home to participate in the new national mural painting program. During his last years in Europe, Rivera experimented with Cezanne's style and closely studied Italian Renaissance masters. Using a grant from the Mexican government, Rivera went to Italy to study fresco painting. In a letter to Jose Vasconcelos, head of the Mexican Ministry of Education that commissioned the national murals, Rivera stated:

From a letter that Rivera wrote to Vasconcelos

Rivera and Vasconcelos

Rivera began his first Mexican mural commission in 1922 in the National Preparatory School but he did not achieve celebrity until his mural in the new Ministry of Education - 128 panels filled with disparate aspects of Mexican culture. Through his work on this mural, Rivera quickly developed a reputation for hard, often frenzied, work culminating in powerful images that were defined by vivid colors, masterful compositions, attention to lighting and architecture, and a sympathetic ear for the masses.

His Reputation
Rivera's life in Mexico was filled with murals, women, and politics. By 1931, Diego Rivera created 6 major mural paintings throughout Mexico, married and divorced Guadalupe Marin, married Frida Kahlo, and joined and was dismissed from the Mexican Communist Party. His relationship with the communist party was very complicated. As a result, he spent his whole life proving that he sympathized with the masses.

Learn more about Frida Kahlo  Learn about the international workers movement
     Left: Rivera with his wife, Frida Kahlo, on their wedding day.
     Right: Rivera marched with the Mexican Communist Party after the murder of Antonio Mella.

When he received his first commission from United States Ambassador Dwight Morrow in December of 1929, Rivera was already an established painter whose work embodied the tensions between the indigenous and European elements of Mexican society while also celebrating ancient Mexican history and culture. Through his ability to embrace futuristic aspects of modern life, while also representing a nation's history and roots, he became the perfect choice for a nation recently crippled by the Depression and in search of a national identity.