(b Guanajuato, 13 Dec. 1886; d Mexico City, 24 Nov. 1957). Mexican painter, the most celebrated figure in the revival of monumental fresco painting that is his country's most distinctive contribution to modern art. He visited Paris in 1909 and after a brief return to Mexico he settled there from 1911 to 1920. During this time he became one of the lions of café society and was friendly with many leading artists.
He became familiar with modern movements, but although he made some early experiments with avant-garde idioms, notably Cubism, his mature art was firmly rooted in Mexican tradition. At about the time of the Russian Revolution he had become interested in politics and in the role art could play in society. In 1920–1 he visited Italy to study Renaissance frescos (already thinking in terms of a monumental public art), then returned to his homeland, eager to be of service to the Mexican Revolution. In 1920 Alvaro Obregón, an art lover as well as a reformist, had been elected president of Mexico, and Rivera, who was an extremely forceful personality, swiftly emerged as the leading artist in the programme of murals he initiated glorifying the history and people of the country in a spirit of revolutionary fervour. Many examples of his work are in public buildings in Mexico City, and they are often on a huge scale, a tribute to his enormous energy. His most ambitious scheme, in the National Palace, covering the history of Mexico, was begun in 1929; it was still unfinished at his death, but it contains some of his most magnificent work. Rivera's murals were frankly didactic, intended to inspire a sense of nationalist and socialist identity in a still largely illiterate population; their glorification of creative labour or their excoriation of capitalism can be crude, but his best work has astonishing vigour. He showed formidable skill in choreographing his incident- and figure-packed compositions, in combining traditional and modern subject matter, and in blending stylized and realistic images.In 1927 Rivera visited the Soviet Union and in 1930–4 he worked in the USA, painting several frescos that were influential on the muralists of the Federal Art Project. His main work in American was a series, Detroit Industry (1932–3), in the Detroit Institute of Arts; another major mural, Man at the Crossroads (1933), in the Rockefeller Center, New York, was destroyed before completion because he included a portrait of Lenin. It was replaced by a mural by Brangwyn. Throughout his career he also painted a wide range of easel pictures, in some of which he experimented with the encaustic (wax) technique. Rivera was an enormous man, and although he was notoriously ugly he was irresistibly attractive to women. He had numerous love affairs and was married three times, his second wife (and his third, for they divorced and remarried) being the painter Frida Kahlo. Her parents said ‘it was like a marriage between an elephant and a dove.’
Text Source: The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford University Press)