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DIEGO RIVERA

LIBERATION OF THE PEON, 1931

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About the Artwork

Diego Rivera’s Liberation of the Peon makes visible the cruel and exploitative Mexican peonage system, which kept agricultural workers in servitude to the owners of large properties, or haciendas, until they could pay off a debt by work. The laborers (peons) were routinely subject to brutal punishment. In this fresco painting, a hacienda worker has been tied to a post, whipped, and left for dead by his overseers. Four revolutionary soldiers have come to his rescue. In the distance, a hacienda building burns.

Rivera based this painting on a fresco he had created in 1923 in Mexico City as part of a series narrating the history of the Mexican people and their struggles during the 1910–20 Mexican Revolution. The composition is a secular adaptation of a famous fresco, The Lamentation of Christ, painted by the Italian artist Giotto in about 1435 at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.

About the Artist

José Diego María Rivera (Mexican, 1886–1957) was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1886. He was named “Diego” after his freethinking, journalist father, a criollo (a person of European descent born in Spanish colonial America), and “María,” after his mother, who was an obstetrician and a mestizo (part European, part Indian). A precocious child who learned to read at the age of four, he liked to draw so much that his father gave him a special room in which he could draw on anything, even the walls! When Diego was five, the family moved to Mexico City. At the age of twelve, he was allowed to enroll in the Academia de San Carlos (Academy of San Carlos), a prestigious, European-style art school, despite the fact that he was much younger than the other students. After graduating, Rivera traveled on a government scholarship to Spain and France. He remained in Europe for fourteen years, going home for only one brief trip in 1910, when the Mexican Revolution was beginning. During his time abroad he became friends with avant-garde artists Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and Jacques Lipchitz and learned all about Modern art. In 1921, Álvaro Obregón was elected president of Mexico. Obregón provided government support for a revival of mural painting designed to give illiterate Mexicans a sense of their national identity. Rivera then decided to return home.

Seeing Mexico again through fresh eyes, Rivera was enchanted by pre-Colombian and folk art. With artists David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, he quickly became a leader of the Mexican mural renaissance. He also joined the Mexican Communist Party, with which he had a stormy relationship throughout his life. After funding for murals in Mexico began to fade, he accepted commissions from U.S. businessmen and created controversial murals in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York City. Rivera’s personal life was also tumultuous, especially his marriage, divorce, and remarriage to the charismatic artist Frida Kahlo (1907–1954).

Rivera lived during a period of intense social and political change in Mexico and the world. He created an amazing number of large-scale murals in his own country and the United States.

Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art

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