Among the great joys of working in an auction house are the discoveries we bring to light of the works we are privileged to handle. We are honored to present Frida Kahlo’s Portrait of a Lady in White and to share with you the intriguing story of its sitter. Just as we were sending our catalogue to press, new research surfaced, regarding the identity of the woman in Portrait of a Lady in White. In recent years, it was generally accepted that the sitter in this elegant portrait was Dorothy Brown Fox, an American friend of the artist. New research now suggests that this enigmatic sitter may be an entirely different woman—Elena Boder, a Russian émigré and high school friend of Kahlo’s, who appears to have remained a close confidant of the artist throughout her life. Two separate women with fascinating life stories intertwined with that of the incomparable Frida Kahlo. What we know for certain is that the portrait was painted at a pivotal moment in Kahlo’s career—a time when she would both define herself as an artist and begin her life’s journey with Diego Rivera. Here is the story of Frida, Dorothy and Elena.
“In 1929,” Kahlo declared, “I joined the Communist Party, I got married to Diego, and I had my first abortion.”1 This watershed year witnessed the beginnings of connubial comradeship— mutually adoring, if at times strained and famously philandering—in the wake of Kahlo and Rivera’s wedding on August 21. “At seventeen [twenty] I fell in love with Diego,” she recalled, “and my [parents] did not like this because Diego was a Communist and because they said that he looked like a fat, fat, fat Brueghel. They said that it was like marriage between an elephant and a dove.”2 Such incongruities notwithstanding, they wed in a small, “unpretentious” ceremony, La Prensa announced; the newspaper described the bride as “one of [the] disciples” of the “discutido pintor,” noting the “very simple street clothes” that she wore (and photographing her with cigarette in hand).3 Several days later, after a wild, tequila-fueled wedding party—graced by a memorable scene between Kahlo and Guadalupe Marín, Rivera’s ex-wife—Kahlo moved into the marital home at 104 Paseo de la Reforma.
Their courtship had begun a year earlier, likely at one of the weekly soirées hosted by the charismatic photographer Tina Modotti but officially, in a more fabled retelling, at the Secretaría de Educación Pública, where Rivera was finishing a mural cycle. “There was beginning to be talk about Diego,” Kahlo recalled, “that he had returned from Russia and was giving talks on Russian theater and art. I would go to hear him. Afterward, he began to paint at the [Escuela Nacional Preparatoria] and later at the Secretaría de Educación.” There, with paintings in hand, she called up to Rivera, demanding that he come down from the scaffold to critique her portraits; intrigued, he climbed down and went on to accept an invitation to the Casa Azul, her childhood home, the next Sunday. “Then, the friendship and almost courtship with Diego began,” Kahlo continued. “I would go to see him paint in the afternoon, and afterward he would take me home by bus or in a Fordcito—a little Ford that he had—and he would kiss me.”4 Kahlo’s paintings—no less her personal style, which evolved from flapper fashion to Communist red and black—began to betray her proximity to Rivera and his influence.
Kahlo had only recently begun to paint in earnest, prompted by boredom and loneliness during her long convalescence from a near-fatal streetcar accident, in September 1925, in which she was impaled by a metal handrail and broke her spinal column in three places. “I never thought of painting until 1926,” Kahlo later wrote to the Surrealist dealer Julien Levy, “when I was in bed on account of an automobile accident. I was bored as hell in bed with a plaster cast. . . . I stoled [sic] from my father some oil paints, and my mother ordered for me a special easel…and I started to paint.”5 At first, she made portraits of friends—namely the Cachucas, her closest schoolmates from the Preparatoria, known equally for their intelligence as their irreverence—and family members. Inseparable from her pain, which persisted and intensified over the course of her life, Kahlo’s painting took on a therapeutic and formative role as she entered adulthood, newly reborn as an artist. “Frida is the only painter who gave birth to herself,” remarked the pioneering photographer and her longtime friend, Lola Álvarez Bravo. “The struggle of the two Fridas was in her always, the struggle between one dead Frida and one Frida that was alive.” If the specter of her pain and suffering haunted her paintings from their inception, nevertheless through her practice “her love for nature was renewed, the same as for animals, colors and fruits, anything beautiful and positive around her.”6
This affirmative positivity and self-renewal imbue a number of portraits that Kahlo painted around the time of her wedding. “We moved from the house on Reforma to Coyoacán,” she recounted, “and that had an enormous influence on me. How we painted the house and the Mexican furniture, all that influenced my painting a lot. While still on Reforma, I painted a self-portrait [Self-Portrait “Time Flies”]. . . . Once in Coyoacán, I began to make paintings with backgrounds and Mexican things in them. I painted the portraits of [Salomón] Hale’s sister [in-law] [Portrait of Miriam Penansky], of Guadalupe Marín [later destroyed by Marín], and the one of Diego, which I did not finish.”7 Another remarkable, unfinished painting from this time is the present Portrait of a Lady in White, originally held in the collection of Lola Álvarez Bravo. The identity of the sitter has long confounded scholars. However, thanks to information only recently come to light, one theory suggests the model may be Dorothy Brown Fox. This theory is supported by details provided by the Brown Fox family and further confirmed by letters, sealed with lipstick kisses, between Kahlo and Brown Fox now in the archive of the Frida Kahlo Museum (Mexico City).
Later a writer for radio soap operas but at the time an aspiring Spanish teacher, Brown Fox traveled from Los Angeles to Mexico City to hone her language skills, and met Kahlo serendipitously upon her arrival. Elegant and glamorous, she was herself soon to be married, following her return to the United States, and Kahlo styles her model in a manner that suggests a fashionable bride-to-be. Sleekly cropped, her hair frames a delicate, made-up face; the slender strands of her necklace echo the low, curving neckline of a modern white gown, smartly paired with long evening gloves. The portrait invites comparisons to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait “Time Flies,” with which it shares a similar backdrop—a metal balcony framed by heavy curtains, drawn with tasseled ropes to each side—and comparably prepossessing sitters dressed in white, their gazes steady and their postures upright. If Kahlo’s lace-trimmed blouse and jade beads signaled her mestiza identity, channeling the traditional Tehuana costume that endeared her to Rivera, the model in the present work appears by contrast modishly American, innocent and beguiling. Sitting serenely beneath a pinkish-burgundy ribbon, its message uninscribed and forever unknowable, the sitter projects a graceful and vulnerable feminine mystique, a vision irresistible to her newfound friend and portraitist.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
From 1929 through 1930, Frida Kahlo painted a portrait of a young woman which would remain unfinished. Kahlo’s approach to the portrait is not unlike that of her own self-portrait painted around that same time and titled Self-Portrait (Time Flies). The latter suggests the sitter must have been someone particularly close and special to the artist. Both paintings depict feminine figures seated in a balcony in front of an iron balustrade framed by a heavy curtain pulled back with a thick cord. Both women are dressed in white, their gazes fixed beyond the painting; but unlike Frida’s gaze, which is directed at the viewer, the young woman’s gaze appears to be consumed by her own thoughts. The fact that Frida Kahlo would depict another woman in a similar pose and composition suggests her desire to establish a connection between both paintings as well as between both sitters. Undoubtedly Kahlo knew this young woman whose identity has been subject to various attributions, yet the painting itself was left incomplete with the pink ribbon or banderole along the upper edge left empty with no inscription relative to the model’s identity.
But who is this virginal and reserved young woman Kahlo depicted wearing elegant white gloves, in a 1920s-style sleeveless dress, with a multi-strand necklace suggested with only a few brushstrokes, and adorned with a single coquettish flower in her hair? In my recent research, I have discovered that Frida Kahlo had a schoolmate at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria named Elena Boder. Elena was a Russian immigrant originally from Odessa, Ukraine who had arrived in Mexico in 1919 via Japan, fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution. Frida and Elena were both born in 1907 and as high school students at the Preparatoria they dreamed of becoming physicians. From 1921-1924, they studied the same courses, including botany, which Elena passed while Frida failed; yet they both passed geometric drawing and Spanish literature. Indeed, the two followed a similar academic path up until the fateful accident on September 17, 1925 which interrupted Kahlo’s studies, while Boder was provisionally admitted to medical school on January 31, 1925 having completed her preparatory studies.
Confined to bed following her near fatal accident, Kahlo began to paint. Around 1927, she started visiting the artist Diego Rivera and joined the Communist Party; by August 1929 the two had married and Kahlo had embarked on her career as a painter. It’s possible the friendship between Elena Boder and Kahlo continued during this period, and perhaps Elena was the model for the Portrait of a Lady in White. If we compare a 1925 photograph of Elena Boder with Kahlo’s portrait, we immediately notice Elena’s serene beauty and the delicate features of her mouth and nose, including the unusual distance between her eyes and fine eyebrows, along with her dark wavy hair that frame her face. The lasting friendship between these two very gifted women, must have surely inspired Kahlo to create the portrait that remained unfinished at the time Frida left Mexico in November 1930 to accompany Diego Rivera to San Francisco, where he had been invited to paint several murals. Upon Frida’s return, she discovered Elena had emigrated to the United States, via El Paso, Texas on October 18, 1932, which may explain why the painting was never completed—a testament to a special friendship interrupted by destiny’s whims. In the ensuing years, Elena Boder became an eminent neurosurgeon, developed a diagnostic test for detecting dyslexia in young children, and became an authority in the fields of medicine and science. Yet somehow the former classmates met up again. A couple of years before her death, Frida dedicated a small still life to her friend, and although the inscription is now faint, it reads: “For Elena Boder, painted with all my love. Frida Kahlo”—a poignant conclusion to an enduring friendship, and a potential clue for deciphering the possible identity of the sitter of the beautiful and mysterious Portrait of a Lady in White, painted by Frida Kahlo at a significant moment in her life.
Professor Luis-Martin Lozano, art historian