We are grateful to Professor Luis-Martín Lozano for his assistance cataloguing this work.
Mexican Children in the Work of Diego Rivera
Children feature prominently in several of Rivera’s large-scale murals, most notably those at the Secretaría de Educación Pública and at the Alameda among others, and have therefore been a key iconographic element throughout his oeuvre, beginning in the 1920s. In the murals, Rivera features children as part of broader multi-figure, epic narratives and panoramas of Mexican life painted in the wake of the first social revolution of the twentieth century, which prompted the country’s cultural elite to construct a shared history out of the ashes. Artists such as Rivera turned toward representations of laboring campesinos and dark-skinned mestizos, the popular classes, and pre-Hispanic and folk cultures in an effort to incorporate the underclasses visually into the modern nation. Images of rural and peasant children figure prominently throughout these mural cycles as utopian representations of the potential and future of Mexico’s social modernity. To be sure, the archetype of the mother and child, with its roots in Christian iconography, but reconfigured to conjure dark-skinned peasant and working class figures, is a recurrent leitmotif in Mexican muralism.
Yet isolated images of children, specifically in easel paintings and works on paper, also represent a significant genre of their own within Rivera’s extensive body of work. They formulate a major portion of his genre scenes (scenes of everyday life) and also constitute a great number of his portraits. In Mexico, these works often served as studies for larger works. The beautifully rendered boy’s face in Boy with Hat (lot 188) and the attention to the geometric patterning of his woven hat show Rivera’s interest in detail and the tender images he was able to create in his construction of a cultural imaginary. In the United States Rivera found an eager clientele for both portraits and images of children. By the 1930s when the production of such works increased, Rivera enjoyed international cultural prestige due to his performative persona, knack for publicity, attention-grabbing murals, and controversial politics. Yet his activities in the United States coincided with a broader vogue for things Mexican, as it has been termed by Helen Delpar,  creating a market for Rivera’s small- scale works, which provided audiences with a flavor of the grand mural cycles. Apart from commissioned portraits, collectors and enthusiasts in the United States could acquire a slice of life à la Rivera through his images of peasant children and flower carriers.
Three of the six works with images of children by Rivera here are flower carriers or street vendors, yet another subgenre in the artist’s oeuvre related to his images of cargadores (burden carriers or carriers of bundles). These particular images of children flower carriers or street vendors need to be understood as images of labor and documents of a transforming nation. A young girl carries monumental calla lilies that dwarf her in size, as she walks barefoot, clutching a hand-crafted woven basket (refer to lot 29). Like the figures in Rivera’s famous flower paintings, these representations of laborers are based on pre-Columbian sculptures, such as the ceramic cargador from Nayarit (600-900) from the Museo Anahuacalli, which houses Rivera’s collection of almost 59,400 pre-Columbian objects. The drawings and watercolors on the theme of the cargador and the children flower carriers are either ambiguous in terms of the setting or take place in decidedly urban streets where the vendors would sell their wares. Irrespective of setting, however, these images tackle a theme imbricated in the modernization of the nation, as documented by photo postcards with similar imagery, which were interpretations of the “tipos” tradition and costumbrismo. Rivera was no doubt highly aware of these visual cultural precedents and appropriated them strategically. The muralist’s works allegorize the rural peasants who migrated and inundated the capital in the 1930s and who formed an integral part of the process of transforming it from an essentially agrarian locale into a sprawling metropolis.  The colorful pendant works from 1950 have their origins in the works from the 1930s, but here are decidedly more festive with backdrops of orange and purple flowers; notably the children now wear shoes and are more dressed up. Unlike the work from 1936 where the girl remains anonymous, particular attention is paid in the pendant works to the children’s facial physiognomy, emphasizing their Indian features and dark skin (refer to lots 30 and 31).
Two of the six works here are oil on canvas paintings and both were painted in 1939. One is a portrait of Inesita Martínez (lot 34), the daughter of Modesta Martínez, one of Rivera’s Indian models.  Inesita wears a blue dress and large pink bow in her hair as she sits on the floor and stares at the viewer. The subject of at least one other painting that same year, a double portrait of her and her mother, Inesita embodies childhood innocence in these works. The other painting in this sale, Niña con muñeca de trapo (lot 28), focuses on a girl seated on a simple chair embracing a rag doll tucked in an elaborate and beautiful red and black rebozo, mimicking the manner in which mothers hold their babies wrapped in such traditional shawls. Notably, Rivera contrasts the white doll with the girl’s dark skin. The painting also pays close attention to the intricate patterning and embroidery of the lush rebozo, which creates a decorative flair against the stark white backdrop. Here, Rivera highlights indigenous artisanry in his portrait of indigenous girlhood.
2018-2019 Stuart Z. Katz Professor of the Humanities and the Arts
The City College of New York, CUNY
Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Art
Ph.D. Program in Art History, The Graduate Center, CUNY
1 Helen Delpar, The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican: Cultural Relations between the United States and Mexico, 1920-1935 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992).
2 Anna Indych-López, “Cargadores: Collecting Rivera, Mexican Modernism, and Bearing the Burdens of Historiography,” in The Americas Revealed: Collecting Colonial and Modern Latin American Art in the United States, eds. Inge Reiste and Edward Sullivan (University Park: Penn State Press, 2018).
3 For a photo of Modesta and Inesita in Rivera’s studio, see Homenaje a Diego Rivera: Retratos (Mexico City: Museo Dolores Olmedo, 2007), 37. See also Patrick Marnham, Dreaming with His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), 305.