This retour à l'ordre was definitive in the artistic trajectory of Diego Rivera. Above all, the influence of Ingres and Paul Cézanne made him renounce Cubism resulting in some of the most beautiful portraits of his European period which culminated in 1921, upon his return to Mexico. Although Rivera understood, as perhaps no other Mexican painter of his time, the importance of pre-Columbian art and of promoting Mexico’s popular and vernacular art traditions, his painting never rejected the great lessons learned from the past. Rivera was able to model a pictorial style that embodies the quintessence of Mexicanidad while simultaneously exerting modernist qualities largely embedded in the trends of European modern art. The present painting, an extraordinary portrait by Diego Rivera of Chilean actress Matilde Palou, confirms the Mexican master never abandoned his great mentors of European art.
Arriving in Mexico in the early 1930s, Matilde Palou rose to prominence as a leading lady of the film industry at a time of great expansion known as the "Golden Age of national cinema.“ Matilde Palou not only possessed great stage presence, as this portrait makes evident, but she had ample dramatic skills developed during her years of training in the theater and the zarzuela; a talent which led her to play powerful supporting roles in unforgettable Latin American films such as: Cuando los padres se quedan solos (When parents are left behind) and El dolor de los hijos (The pain of children), both produced in 1949; to work under renowned Spanish filmmaker, Luis Buñuel, as the jealous and vengeful Doña Carmen in Susana, the impure and perverse, filmed in 1951, the same year that Diego Rivera painted her portrait. This painting, seldom viewed in public, once belonged to renowned American architect Kenneth Franzheim who was a notable patron of Texan art and whom Rivera painted a year earlier in 1950.
Diego Rivera conceived this wonderful portrait by studying two sketches cataloged by the National Institute of Fine Arts. The first drawing identifies the vernacular source of the portrait as the traditional costume of Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico bordering Guatemala. The original model in the drawing was most likely not the Chilean actress given her indigenous features. The unidentified figure wears a dress from the region of Chapa de Corzo; its characteristic semicircular neckline blouse and wide satin skirt with flights of tulle holans are finely embroidered with multicolored silk yarns and one of the most beautiful national emblems in Mexican costume design. Notwithstanding its authentic character, the bourgeois environment of the fireplace and the Art Deco bracelet on her left wrist reveal a more cosmopolitan inspiration, one that does not escape the eye of the attentive spectator.
When Diego Rivera envisioned this fantastic portrait he found inspiration in Madame Moitessier painted just a century earlier by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, arguably the most talented portraitist of the nineteenth-century. Matilde Palou's idealized, furtive look and sensuality is no less serene and haughty than that of Marie-Clotilde de Moitessier's painted by Ingres. Both women were portrayed with translucent white skin, shapely shoulders and arms, and elegant hands adorned with rings, fine golden bracelets and precious stones which together are meant to appeal to the enjoyment of the senses. Likewise, both dresses present a lavish brocade of flowers. Rivera has allowed himself to design an elaborate headdress which is only discernible in Ingres’s portrait through the mirror. Artistic license was also taken in the Mexican silk rebozo knotted around Matilde Palou's waist to emphasize the visual appetite for her glowing body.
In addition to the dialogue between the two painters, both works allude to portraits of their time. Madame Moitessier embodies the bourgeoisie opulence that reigned during the French Empire of Napoleon III while Matilde Palou illustrates pride in the Mexican identity. During these years of postwar nationalism Mexico had opened its borders once again to foreign investment and economic development, propitiating an ideological referent that internationalized Mexican cinema of the 1940s. Rivera not only glosses over Ingres' work—paying tribute to the great figure of the nineteenth-century who so enriched his own work as a painter in Paris but also reflects a new model for Mexican modernity.
Undoubtedly, the validity of this masterpiece by Diego Rivera in the genre of twentieth-century modern portraiture has not lost its relevance. Now more than ever, within the framework of nationalist protectionism against the realities of a globalized world, it is a testament to the pride of the Mexican people.
Profesor Luis-Martín Lozano, Art Historian
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