We are grateful to art historian Juan Carlos Pereda for his assistance cataloguing this work.
“The Tamayo show is of such a kind that it will endear itself quickly to the eye of ardent disciples of modernism” a critic for the Chicago Tribune wrote after the opening of the 1945 Rufino Tamayo exhibition at The Arts Club of Chicago.  It was no doubt Tamayo’s bold use of color, radically streamlined forms and deliberate denial of depth in his paintings from the 1930s and 1940s that defined his work as modern for viewers at the time. Peasant Woman, included in the exhibition, with its highly-stylized geometric figure rising against shallow planes of vibrant blue and yellow indeed lends itself to comparison with other modernist masters—the collapsing of space for example suggests the influence of Cubism and the blocky monumentality of the figure calls to mind the women of Picasso’s Classical Period. While perhaps steeped in European modernist art historical traditions, Peasant Woman is a distinctly Tamayoan invention. An indigenous woman kneels on the ground beside her basket, perhaps selling her wares in a market, an image Tamayo conceivably recalled from his childhood spent in Oaxaca. The woman’s strikingly sculptural form, while decidedly Picasso-esque, may also allude to pre-Columbian art which Tamayo deeply admired, studied and collected.
The formidable female presence became a hallmark of Tamayo’s work. Whether taking the specific form of Olga in his many portraits of his beloved wife or as an abstracted hulking goddess as seen in Peasant Woman and other paintings from the early part of his career or as barely discernable shapes, the curve of a breast or the crook of an arm, appearing amidst the pulsating patchworks of riotous colors in his later canvases, the female figure remained a constant source of inspiration for Tamayo for more than seven decades.
By pursuing more traditional subjects, Tamayo distanced himself from the overtly political work of his contemporaries, most notably Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. Instead Tamayo made a name for himself as a daring stylistic innovator. As early as 1940, Tamayo’s radical formalist approach to painting was making news in the New York art world. A review of that year’s epic exhibition, Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art at the Museum of Modern Art declared “Among these living Mexicans it is Tamayo who carries aesthetics furthest.”  In the ensuing years, Tamayo enjoyed financial success and critical recognition with solo shows at Valentine Gallery and important acquisitions of his work made by MOMA, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. While Tamayo would go on to have a long and prolific career, his work from the 1940s, like Peasant Woman, bring us back to that pivotal moment in the artist's journey, when he was on the brink of being transformed from a struggling unknown painter to an international star.
1 Eleanor Jewett, “Exhibits Show Modern Art in Varied Fashions,” Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1945, p. 17.
2 Quoted in I. Suckaer, 'Chronology,' in exhibition catalogue Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2007, 420.