In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Diego Rivera

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • Anthologies
  • Journal Articles
  • Films about Rivera’s Work
  • Monographs on Murals
  • Illustrated Books
  • A Modernist Artist
  • Role in Collecting Ancient Mexican Art
  • The Lens of Politics

Art History Diego Rivera
Linda Downs, James Oles
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0083


Diego Rivera (b. 1886–d. 1957) was a leading modern Mexican artist who was internationally acclaimed as one of the founders of the Mexican mural movement (1924–1934) and who revived and mastered the use of true fresco (painting on wet limestone plaster). His murals captured the ideals of the Mexican Revolution and Civil War (1910–1920)—the restitution of commonly held land; the elevation of indigenous race, history, and culture; and universal education with an emphasis on science. In Mexico, Rivera painted government-sponsored murals that were commissioned through the Ministry of Education (Secretaría de Educación Pública) and that emphasize indigenous history and culture. In the United States, he received privately sponsored mural commissions from J. D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil, and from Edsel B. Ford, son of the founder of Ford Motor Company, among others, and in these murals he emphasized labor and technology. Rivera painted sixteen major mural commissions in Mexico and the United States between 1922 and 1953. His best known murals are the Court of Labor and Court of Fiestas, Ministry of Education (Secretaría de Educación Pública) (1923–1928); Liberated Earth with Natural Forces Controlled by Man, Autonomous University of Chapingo (Universidad Autónoma de Chapingo) (1926–1927); History of Mexico: From the Conquest to the Future, National Palace (Palacio Nacional) (1929–1930); Detroit Industry, Detroit Institute of Arts (1932–1933); and Man at the Crossroads Looking with Uncertainty but with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a Course Leading to a New and Better Future, Rockefeller Center, New York, destroyed in 1933 and repainted as Man, Controller of the Universe, Museum of the National Palace of Fine Arts (Museo del Palacio National de Bellas Artes), Mexico (1934). He was an outstanding draughtsman. His finest monumental drawings are the thirteen cartoons (preliminary drawings for murals) for Detroit Industry (8.5 feet/2.64 meters high and 19 feet/5.82 meters wide). Before he painted murals, he was a highly accomplished Salon Cubist (one of the artists who developed their own style of Cubism) in Paris. His most well-known Cubist work is Zapatista Landscape—The Guerrilla (1915). Rivera’s many assistants included Ben Shahn (b. 1898–d. 1969), Clifford Wight (b. 1900–c. d. 1960), and Lucienne Bloch (b. 1909–d. 1999). His mural style, subject matter, and fresco recipe was adopted by the muralists hired through the United States Works Progress Administration Mural Project during the Depression (1935–1943) and by the Chicano mural movement (1960s–1970s) in the southwest United States and Chicago. The historiography on Rivera is vast. He was a prolific writer of manifestos, essays, and an autobiography. Mexican scholarship on his work has been continuous since the 1930s. Publications by the Institute of Aesthetic Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma Mexico, Mexico) and the exhibitions developed by the Museum of the Palace of Fine Arts have focused on specific themes related to politics, theory, and cultural history. Scholarship on Rivera’s work in the United States diminished during the Cold War (1947–1991), except for the work of Marxist art historians who added greater understanding of the political climate in which Rivera painted. International retrospective exhibition catalogues are important sources on his life and work, including Rivera 1951 (cited under Exhibition Catalogues: Retrospective Exhibitions); Helms 1998 and Coronel Rivera 2008 (both cited under General Overviews: Reference Works); and Dickerman and Indych-López 2011 (cited under Exhibition Catalogues: Exhibitions Devoted to Specific Themes, Media, or Periods). Rivera historiography lacks a catalogue raisonné.

General Overviews

Early research on Rivera and the Mexican Mural Renaissance tended to follow a course of tributes or strong political views, since the movement was founded during the post-revolutionary period in Mexico and was supported by the Mexican government. While serious scholarship on Rivera followed continuous growth in Mexico from the 1960s on, scholarly attention was limited in the United States during the Cold War, and it was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that a broader group of international scholars took interest in many aspects of his work. At the same time, with the development of feminist scholarship and the popular interest in Frida Kahlo, her work and life tended to eclipse the attention given to and the understanding of Rivera as an important modernist artist. Rivera’s philandering and shifting political stances were emphasized. Since 2000, there has been a resurgence of interest in his work, as scholars have attempted to reassess his work and its critical reception. The books selected present the political, aesthetic, and social context for Rivera’s work. Textbooks are for students and the public who are new to the subject.

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