An icon of Latin American art, Rivera stands alongside José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros as one of "Los Tres Grandes," the outstanding figures of the muralist movement and the Mexican avant-garde. Rivera began his first mural in 1922 (Creation, at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria), and over the next decade completed major mural cycles in Chapingo (1924-27), Mexico City (1923-35), and Cuernavaca (1930) as well as in the United States. The historical and national narratives that predominated in his work during these years dovetailed with the zeitgeist of the early post-Revolutionary period, and the publicity--no less, the polemics--surrounding his mural commissions entered into the heated political debates of the day. Rivera made few easel paintings during this time. However, his works in this medium crystallize many of the social issues and didactic interests that inform his contemporary murals, and they reflect as well his growing interest in indigenous Mexican culture.
Rivera spent the years of the Mexican Revolution abroad, returning only in 1921 at the invitation of José Vasconcelos, newly installed as Minister of Education, to participate in a national program of mural painting. In November 1922, Vasconcelos sent Rivera to Tehuantepec, where he encountered pre-Hispanic artifacts and found powerful new stimulation in the region's indigenous culture. The Tehuantepec Indians figure prominently in his early murals at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (1923-28) and in his easel paintings from this period. To Rivera, the Indians embodied an arcadian way of life and a living connection to Mexico's pre-Columbian past, unsullied by the modern world. In paintings of flower vendors and bathers, he romanticized the peasant class and celebrated the rituals and mythology of their everyday lives.
Madre con hijos reflects Rivera's new and enduring interest in depicting Mexico's indigenous people. Though painted on an intimate scale, the three figures possess a monumental bearing commensurate with their stature as archetypes of Mexico's historical past. Their expressions are serious and steadfast as they gaze in different directions; the sobriety of color and subtle tonality of paint further convey a feeling of timelessness and stability. The mother appears securely grounded in her chair, her sturdy feet and generously proportioned hands firmly protecting her younger child as she sits on her lap. The elder child, too, has a gravitas beyond his years: his figure stretches almost the length of the canvas, perhaps suggesting the social importance of young men in the wake of the tremendous demographic costs of the Revolution.
Family values may well have weighed on Rivera's mind during 1926. His wife, Guadalupe Marín, had given birth to his daughter, Lupe, in 1924, and she would bear a second daughter, Ruth, in 1927. Their marriage was short-lived, in part on account of Rivera's notorious dalliances. He began a brief affair with the photographer Tina Modotti in 1926, when she modeled for the Chapingo murals, and that same year he met Frida Kahlo, whom he married for the first time in 1929.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park