Diego Rivera — The Fiesta Begins!
Wherever Diego Rivera went, he created a stir. His first visit to San Francisco in 1930 was no exception. His fame as a muralist had spread throughout Mexico.
Now a group of art patrons from the United States commissioned him to decorate their walls, too.
Squeezed into the back of a tiny sports car, he waved his arms with excitement at what he saw. Anyone watching the green convertible zip up and down the impossibly steep streets had to smile. Rivera wore a Stetson hat that made his 300-pound, six-foot frame seem even larger. It was like sightseeing on a roller coaster — it seemed as if he might fly out of the car at any moment.
The sights he saw were thrilling! Construction workers, perched high atop steel beams, were building skyscrapers. Small airplanes crisscrossed above the bay. On the ground, men in overalls operated machines, while engineers studied blueprints. They were building San Francisco, and Diego Rivera, the great Mexican muralist, was there to paint them.
At the bottom of Chestnut Street, one of the steepest streets in the city, was his mural. It was a large interior wall of an art school. Rivera covered the wall with a type of mural called a fresco. A fresco is made by applying paint to damp plaster. As the plaster dries, the colors bond to it.
Rivera titled his creation The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City. He included himself in the painting, and his assistants busy with their tasks. One man spreads fresh plaster while others measure the wall. In the center sits the master himself, Rivera. His back is to us, and his plump bottom hangs over the scaffold. He's doing what he loves best — painting a mural.
An Artist Is Born
On December 8, 1886, twin boys were born in the Mexican village of Guanajuato (gwan-e-HWAT-tow), located in the Sierra Madre Mountains.
The arrival of two babies caused tremendous excitement in the household of Señor Diego and Señora María Rivera. In the four years of their marriage, María had been pregnant four times. The first three births ended tragically when she delivered stillborn (lifeless) babies. Now, the neighbors heard the cries of a newborn coming from the Rivera home. The doctor came out of the bedroom and held up two fingers.
Two? There were two babies? Señor Rivera was overjoyed! But the doctor had more news. It was not good. This time there had been a different tragedy during delivery. In 1886 it was common for women to give birth at home. But giving birth was a risk for the mother. Having twins was an even greater risk.
Diego was the first. His mother bled badly during his birth. By the time his brother arrived a few minutes later, María had lost so much blood that she went into a coma. When the doctor failed to find her pulse, he pronounced her dead.
But a short while after the doctor left, María's friend leaned over to kiss her cold forehead and say good-bye. When she thought she heard María breathing, she cried out. They called the doctor back for a second opinion.
This time they gave María the blister test, the standard procedure for such a dilemma in those days. The doctor lit a match and placed it just beneath her left heel. To his great surprise, a blister formed. This wouldn't have happened if his original diagnosis had been correct. The babies' mother was alive! Eventually she made a full recovery.
The City of Silver
Rivera's parents were well-educated schoolteachers who met in Guanajuato. His mother was a small woman of Spanish and native Mexican heritage. His father was a large black-bearded man whose ancestors came from Europe. Rivera's grandfather moved to Mexico from Spain. Diego's grandmother was of Portuguese-Jewish ancestry. As an adult, Diego liked to brag that he was a mixture of many cultures.
Today, Guanajuato is a charming old silver-mining town. It is located in central Mexico, 221 miles northwest of Mexico City. It was once Mexico's greatest silver-mining city.
The Riveras lived on the top floor of a beautiful house. It had a splendid view overlooking the rooftops of the town and the mountains beyond. The house was full of books. It had a grand piano in the drawing room. The Rivera family was wealthy enough to have a horse and carriage and a groom to drive them around town.
And now there were two more in the family. The firstborn was named Diego after his father. His bother was named Carlos. When it came time for Diego to be baptized, his parents gave him a very long name: Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanisloa de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez.
Each baby had his own nanny. Even with this special care, Carlos became very ill and died before his second birthday. After the funeral, Diego's mother wouldn't leave the child's grave. It didn't seem to matter that she still had Diego. In fact, she seemed to forget about him. She wouldn't leave Carlos, even at night. So Señor Rivera had to rent a room for his wife in the cemetery keeper's lodge.
María's doctor warned Señor Rivera that she might not recover. The only hope, the doctor suggested, was to distract her with work. He suggested that María go back to school.
Gradually, her husband persuaded her to continue her studies. She chose obstetrics, a branch of medicine that deals with pregnancy and childbirth. María wanted to be a midwife, someone who assists in childbirth. That way, she'd be able to help women who had similar problems to those she had experienced while giving birth.
María's studies left her no time for her young child. Luckily the family had Antonia, baby Diego's nurse, to watch over him.
The Tale of a Goat
At age two, Diego was also not so healthy. He was too thin. He had rickets, a disease that affects the bones of children if they don't get proper nutrition. Diego needed to be fattened up!
The doctor advised that Diego be sent to the country. There, he could live a healthy outdoor life. Antonia was the answer. With the Riveras' blessing, she took Diego up into the mountains to her own village. With Diego strapped to her back, Antonia rode a donkey into the hills. He lived with Antonia and her family for two years.
When Diego was an adult, he wrote about this time with Antonia, who was a full-blooded Mexican Indian. Diego later wrote that he loved her more than his own mother. Her house was a primitive shack in the middle of the woods. He thought of her as something of a witch doctor because she practiced medicine with herbs and magic.
Antonia knew just how to fatten little Diego up. She found him another nanny — a nanny goat. His goat became an affectionate companion, and Diego had a lot of fresh goat's milk. Whether it was the magic, the goat's milk, or just plain love and attention, it worked. Diego began to thrive and became a chubby toddler.
Later in his life, Diego told stories about playing in the forest around Antonia's home. He and his goat were inseparable. When he roamed in the woods, Diego said, his goat always followed. She was like a mother watching over him. He imagined all the animals in the forest were his friends, even the dangerous and poisonous ones. Snakes and jaguars were his buddies, he claimed. Diego had a vivid imagination, and was famous for his tall tales. His memories of the forest were happy ones. Throughout his life Rivera loved animals. He once wrote, "I have always enjoyed the trust of animals — a precious gift."
After two years of Antonia's care, she returned a fat, healthy boy to the Rivera family. María wasn't thrilled that her son had changed into "another Diego." She didn't like that he spoke to his parrot in Antonia's native language, Tarascan (Ta-RAS-kan), instead of Spanish. But she was happy to have her family together. A year later, María gave birth to a baby girl. The Riveras named her María, after her mother.
The Little Artist
By the time he was four years old, Diego was a very busy artist. He grabbed whatever pens and pencils he could find around the house, and drew on everything! When he couldn't find paper, he'd use the furniture and walls. His father appreciated Diego's enthusiasm, but he worried that his son might destroy the house. Finally, he covered the walls of one room with canvas, and gave Diego a box of crayons and pencils. Diego had his first art studio.
In addition to drawing, Diego liked to play with model trains and other mechanical toys. It's likely that these toys didn't last very long since the first thing he did with a new toy was take it apart to see how it worked. After examining the interior mechanics of a toy, Diego would stand in front of his canvas-covered wall and draw a picture of his new treasure. He later called these pictures his first murals.
He loved real trains, too. Because of this fascination, he was nicknamed the Engineer. One of Diego's first drawings, done when he was only two or three, was of a locomotive and caboose chugging uphill.
A Father's Influence
Diego's father was a schoolteacher and a city council member. At the time Diego was born, his father had a job inspecting rural schools. He liked the job, and believed schools were very important for the poor villages. He thought that with an education, children in these villages might be able to overcome their poverty. Señor Rivera wanted to help them.
But his journeys by horseback to the remote countryside upset him. There he found people even more poverty-stricken than he had imagined. He decided to do something about it. He began writing for a newspaper called El Demócrata.
He wrote about the horrible living conditions he witnessed. His articles regularly asked the wealthy people of Guanajuato to help. And he criticized the government for not doing more. (When young Diego grew up, he too would be very concerned about the poor.)
Unfortunately, Señor Rivera's pleas for the needy were mostly ignored. Part of the problem was his timing — the village's riches depended on its silver mines. Lately, the miners struggled to bring out enough silver from the mines to make a profit. Even the wealthy were now threatened. The whole town, from the shopkeepers to the mine owners, was affected. Guanajuato had become economically depressed.
During these hard times, charity became an unpopular subject. Señor Rivera's newspaper columns began to make his readers angry. But that didn't stop him. When he realized that his articles were being criticized, Rivera's father became even more rebellious. He even attacked the Roman Catholic Church for not doing enough for the poverty-stricken. This was another unpopular stand to take. Most Mexicans were Catholic. Their fear of God kept them from challenging the church. (Rivera's father was not Catholic.) His readers thought no one was supposed to question the church. They found his words outrageous.
To make matters worse, Guanajuato had a new governor who didn't care for Señor Rivera's type of journalism. This governor did not like it when anyone questioned his authority.
María Rivera knew her husband was making dangerous enemies both in government and in the church. Eventually, the stress was too much for her. She decided to take action. She worked out a plan to pack up the children and sneak out of town.
María grew increasingly frightened for her husband and her family's safety. She waited until her husband went on one of his visits to the country, then she packed up her seven-year-old son and his sister, and set off by train for Mexico City. It was a thrilling trip for young Rivera, who loved trains. Their destination was exciting, too. Mexico City was the largest city in Mexico. Rivera thought they were only going for a short visit. But he soon found out that the plan was for them to remain in Mexico City to live. When Rivera's father returned home from work he found a note from María that said, "Sell the house and follow." María's mind was made up. Her husband quit his job and joined his family in Mexico City. There, he began a new life. It turned out to be a wise move. Shortly after leaving, the governor closed El Demócrata and arrested the staff. Speaking out against those in power became even more risky. Writers critical of the government were often beaten up or even murdered.
Young Rivera was heartbroken about the move. He missed Guanajuato and his old house. The family's new home was so small that he couldn't have his art room.
In addition, the Riveras lived in a poor part of town that didn't have good sanitation. His neighborhood did not have sewers or running water. During Rivera's early childhood, the average life span in Mexico was only 24 years. One reason was that so many young children died from diseases that were the result of poor sanitation.
Rivera did become very ill. First he came down with scarlet fever, a painful illness that can be very serious. Then he got typhoid, another dangerous disease, which is spread by infected water or milk. He was so ill that he didn't draw for a year.
Gradually, as Rivera's illness subsided and his health improved, so did the fortunes of his family. His father found a low-paying desk job at the Department of Health. His mother, who had become a midwife, opened up a women's clinic. And young Rivera discovered art school.
Training to Be an Artist
When Rivera was nine years old, he knew that he wanted to be a professional artist. He persuaded his mother to enroll him in evening art classes at the San Carlos Academy. It was one of the best art schools in Mexico, and he became one of its most talented students.
Rivera was a very bright student. During the day he attended his regular school, where he progressed more quickly than other students. At night, he studied art. When he was 11, he enrolled as a full-time student at the San Carlos Academy. He was much younger than most of his classmates, but he soon outpaced them all.
Because Rivera was such a talented student, he was admitted into classes taught by some of Mexico's greatest artists. Santiago Rebull taught him the basics of drawing and painting. Rebull was a great painter, and had once been a pupil of Ingres. Ingres, who was French, was the most celebrated artist of his time.
Another of Rivera's teachers was José María Velasco. Velasco was famous for his incredible paintings of the Mexican landscape. From him Rivera learned the laws of perspective — how to make his work look three-dimensional.
But it was his teacher Felix Parra who introduced a whole new world of art to Rivera, the artwork of Mexico's past. Before Spain invaded Mexico in the 1500s, the native people had produced a wealth of artwork. This time in the history of Mexican art is called pre-Columbian, because it was before Christopher Columbus came to the New World. Parra researched art from this time period. He shared his enthusiasm for its beauty and meaning with Rivera.
Parra taught Rivera the art of the ancient Mayans, who lived in southern Mexico from about a.d. 300 to 1500. These incredible artists built pyramids and temples. They decorated their walls with brightly colored murals. The Olmecs were an even more ancient group. They lived in the area of Mexico's Gulf Coast as early as 1300 b.c. The Olmecs made beautiful stone sculptures. Some Olmecs tattooed their bodies with images such as jaguars. The Aztecs were great artisans, too. Living in central Mexico from a.d. 1370 to 1521, they were the people who founded Mexico City.
Pre-Columbian art became a lifelong interest for Rivera. One day he would build a museum to house the beautiful pieces he collected. (See chapter 8 for details.)
Skeletons and Folktales
There was another artist who greatly influenced Rivera. He was not an instructor at the academy, but later Rivera called him his greatest teacher. His name was José Guadalupe Posada and he was an engraver. In his engravings, he portrayed scenes of life in Mexico. (For more on engraving see the sidebar on this page.)