Born in 1886, Diego Rivera began to study painting as a young child and by age twelve was enrolled in the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. His prodigious talent garnered him a government stipend to further his artistic studies, leading him to reside in Europe for over a decade. Arriving first in Spain in 1907, where he studied with the great Spanish academic painter Eduardo Chicharro while also studying the great collection of Madrid’s Museo del Prado, Rivera would continue on to Belgium, Italy and more importantly Paris, France. Once situated in his Montparnasse studio, Rivera found himself within the throes of the Cubist revolution. His direct relationships with Juan Gris, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Fernand Léger among others, not only firmly cemented his key role within the Parisian avant-garde, but also dramatically transformed his artistic production—Rivera developed and contributed a unique brand of Cubism in which his interest in themes of nationalism would first emerge.
Almost a decade after the Mexican Revolution, Diego Rivera returned to Mexico in 1921, and became one of the primary and most prolific architects of a new, nationalist vision of artistic expression. During this time, “Mexican artists turned their attention to the problem of how to convey to a largely illiterate population the history of its own political struggles as well as how to introduce them to new revolutionary truths. Artists sought to socialize the language of art by the use of a monumental form of expression—the mural—and thus to help in the creation of a free and cultured society … Of the three greatest muralists, José Clemente Orozco, David Álfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera, only Rivera would attempt to create, in clear, legible, images, a course on sociopolitical history for his compatriots” (I. Rodríguez-Prampolini, “Rivera’s Concept of History” in Diego Rivera, A Retrospective, London, 1986, p. 131). This growing ethos of Mexicanidad permeated throughout the cultural life of the country: music, architecture literature, and the visual arts all became vehicles to define and promote this new brand of nationalism—an exaltation of the laboring/working class and indigenous culture.
Rivera’s homecoming had great consequences for him. The ambitious public mural projects he executed throughout Mexico City during the 1920s catapulted him to international fame and notoriety—“Diego Rivera had emerged as one of the most famous and controversial artists in the world” (L. Martín-Lozano, A. Arteaga, and W. Robinson, “Art & Revolution” in Diego Rivera Art & Revolution, Mexico City, 1999, p. 23). The onset of 1930 marked the first of seven mural commissions in the United States for Rivera: the Luncheon Club of the new Stock Exchange in San Francisco, the Garden Court of the Detroit Institute of Art, and the lobby of the newly completed Rockefeller Center in New York City. Moreover, New York’s Museum of Modern Art organized his first major United States retrospective in 1931—making it the museum’s second one-man show after the Henri Matisse exhibition organized earlier that same year; over 57,000 visitors attended the Rivera exhibition. More important, however, Rivera’s return to Mexico marked his abandonment “of the Cubism that had dominated his work for almost a decade prior” while in Europe and ignited his return to realism (Diego Rivera, A Retrospective, London, 1986, p. 131). Rivera’s personal artistic revolution was thus unapologetically ambitious: “he aspired to create—not merely public art, but truly art for the people, one possessing the visual and rhetorical power to change the world...[within his work] lay tremendous intellectual sophistication, achieved through an innovative fusion of European modernism with the indigenous traditions of Mexico’s pre-Columbian past, the art of its native-American peoples, and the reality of a post-revolutionary Mexico in search of identity and universal recognition” (L. Martín-Lozano, A. Arteaga, and W. Robinson, “Art & Revolution” in Diego Rivera Art & Revolution, Mexico City, 1999, p. 23).
Best revealed in his intimate portrayals of children, Rivera’s new aesthetic language is as sumptuous and rich in color as it is sensible and simplistic in compositional structure. In children, he found the ideal subjects to synthesize his greater socio-political concerns: the exaltation of the common citizen—in this case the most innocent—and their embodiment of nationalist ideals of a utopian future (Los niños mexicanos de Diego Rivera, Mexico City, 1998, p. 11). Through these dignified portraits, Rivera showcases the panorama of Mexican life and that of a child, “indigenous, multi-race, rich, poor, playful, serious; he depicted life at the height of its daily activity as he did at its most restful; at its most laborious and at its most joyful” (ibid, p. 71).
Painted in 1936, El sueño (La niña dormida) encapsulates the key elements of Rivera’s artistic philosophy and the depth of his stylistic prowess. Much like the Impressionists Auguste Renoir and Mary Cassatt (see fig. 2), perhaps the only other modern painters that depicted children not only with similar frequency but also with the same admiration, Rivera employs here an equal reverence of dignity, sweetness and tenderness while also showcasing an equally striking, chromatically rich tonality. We see here a napping young girl, gently reposed with her arms gingerly cradling her head. Outfitting his subject in an effervescent pink dress, billowing with layers of fine cotton, Rivera references the traditional Tehuana dress (often worn by his wife, Frida Kahlo, see fig. 1)—the delicately and elaborately embroidered garment worn by the indigenous women of Tehuantepec and also one of the chosen cultural symbols exalted by the post-Revolution movement of Mexicanidad. A model of a “cultural past and ethnic identity,” Rivera’s sleeping girl proposes “an alternative modernist vision, one that provides a responsible fission of the social and the aesthetic” (P. Karlstrom, “Rivera, Mexico and Modernism in California Art”, in Diego Rivera: Art & Revolution, Mexico City, 1999, p. 220).
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