FRAME|WORK: "Two Women and a Child" by Diego Rivera

FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. Tomorrow is the 125th anniversary of Diego Rivera’s birth, so this week we feature his iconic Two Women and a Child, which is currently on display at the de Young.

Diego Rivera (Mexican, 1886–1957). Two Women and a Child, 1926. Oil on canvas. Gift of Albert M. Bender to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. 1926.122. © 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Rivera is best known for his defining role in the Mexican Mural Movement and his tumultuous personal life with wife Frida Kahlo. An artist from the time he learned to draw at age three, Rivera went on to study at the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City and later in Spain and Paris.

While in Europe, Rivera was encouraged to study Renaissance fresco techniques by Mexico’s post-revolutionary government, which was actively attempting to revive the indigenous tradition of wall painting. Giotto, the early Italian Renaissance artist who adorned the Arena Chapel in Padua with masterful frescoes, proved particularly inspirational to Rivera. In Two Women and a Child, Rivera fuses Giotto’s influence, the socialist ideals of Mexican politics, and the precepts of the Mexican Renaissance, which sought to revive native cultures and traditions as a means of unifying national identity.

Rivera's composition presents two formidable women who sit facing each other, their form and bulk reminiscent of the two kneeling figures in the foreground of Giotto’s Lamentation, one of the panels from the Arena Chapel.

Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1267–1337). The Lamentation, 1305–1306. Fresco. Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy.

Both images forgo spatial depth and instead emphasize the physical and psychological interaction of the figures. Rivera derives the pose of the outward-facing woman from ancient Mexican figurative sculpture, such as this example from Jalisco, currently on display in Gallery 4 of the de Young.

Kneeling female figure, 300 BC–AD 300. West Mexico, ancient Jalisco. Earthenware. Gift of Lewis K. and Elizabeth M. Land. 2009.1.23

Rivera and his artwork helped to promote the idea of a living link between ancient and modern Mexican art. In Two Women and a Child, Rivera reminds the viewer of the ancient prototype to provide an historical precedent for his idealized vision of rural farmers. In the context of the Mexican Renaissance, Rivera’s depictions of laborers served as powerful national symbols of human dignity and perseverance.

Donated by Albert M. Bender in 1926, Two Women and a Child is one of the Museums' marquee paintings. Bender was a highly successful Irish immigrant who dedicated his life to the promotion of the arts and literature in San Francisco. Bender was likely introduced to the artwork of Diego Rivera by local artists Ralph Stackpole and Ray Boynton, both of whom had traveled to Mexico specifically to see Rivera’s murals. For Bender, promoting the art of a Mexican artist in San Francisco was in keeping with the longstanding historic and artistic ties between California and Mexico. Incidentally, Bender gave the painting to the Legion the same year that he purchased it.

Come wish Diego Rivera feliz cumpleaños at the de Young! Two Women and a Child is currently on view in Gallery 50, on the second floor.

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Further reading: Masterworks of American Painting at the de Young.