7 Famous Diego Rivera Mural Paintings

June 28, 2016

If you've heard about Diego Rivera, you've probably heard about his murals too. But how did it all start? As a young artist from Mexico, Diego Rivera enjoyed truly inspirational 15 years he had spent in Europe, from 1907 to 1921. When he returned to Mexico, the next page of his personal and professional life was about to be turned. He started leaning towards mural and fresco painting. Soon, Rivera became involved in the government-sponsored Mexican mural program planned by José Vasconcelos, a Minister of Education in Mexico at that time. It was the starting point of Diego Rivera’s career as a muralist. And he had some big plans for that career. For the wall painting at the Secretariat of Public Education in Mexico City, for instance, he intended to create 124 different frescoes. So, he did, and he painted them from 1922 to 1928.

Around the same time, another important part of Diego Rivera’s life had begun. In the autumn of 1922, Rivera was one of the founders of the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors. Later that year, he joined the Mexican Communist Party. As an artist, he was socially committed, so his artworks expressed his left-wing political orientation. Diego Rivera promoted communism and socialism and believed in the revolutionary character of arts. As a lifelong Marxist, he held strong relations with the Soviet Union, too. But that didn’t stand on his way for the breakthrough in the United States. Well, at least at the beginning. There were several controversial situations later on when commissioners and patrons from the US asked him to change some parts in his murals. But Diego Rivera didn’t want to change his murals, so he didn't do it.

Between 1922 and 1953, Rivera painted murals all over Mexico, and he had also left his mark with several significant wall paintings in the United States. Those can be seen in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York City. Walls of public buildings throughout Mexico and the United States served as a canvas for his artworks, as he was creating an outstanding body of work. Thanks to Rivera, the concept of public arts was reinvented, and this particular art form was once more recognized as an important part of the contemporary art, in both American and Mexican arts. Unfortunately, not all of Diego Rivera murals are exposed to the public eye today, especially in the US. Some of them, like six portable fresco wall works he painted for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, were stored or diffused for 80 years. Then, the MoMA exhibition in 2011 brought these wall paintings back up (actually five of them, because sixth is allegedly lost), but soon after the exhibition, they were obscured again.

Something similar is happening in San Francisco. Change the World or Go Home is the name of an installation by Mexican artist Alejandro Almanza Pereda at the San Francisco Art Institute. That particular piece of the installation is obscuring Diego Rivera artwork The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City behind it. So, one of his famous murals is now being hidden behind the metal construction that was put right in front of it as a part of the performance of another Mexican artist. Reportedly, Alejandro Almanza Pereda stated that other Mexican artists are neglected when compared to Diego Rivera. So, he wanted to outshine his work, but there was a counter effect - putting the construction in front of Rivera’s mural only gained more public attention for Rivera's artworks. Alejandro did get the attention he wanted, too, but the way he did it remains disputable. However, Diego Rivera's artworks are still in the shadow of that metal construction and the audience that wishes to see it doesn't have the chance to completely enjoy it.

With a flourishing artist like Diego Rivera was, it is hard to tell which artwork of his is more important than others. But, some of his murals definitely stood out and some were made more popular than others over time. However, each and every one of them holds a story behind. Here, we present to you the most famous murals painted by Diego Rivera. Enjoy their stories.

Diego Rivera paintings, murals and artworks Editors’ Tip: Diego Rivera: Complete Murals

If you want the complete picture of Diego Rivera’s career as a muralist, then this book is a must-read for you. On these pages, you will find everything you ever wanted to know about Diego Rivera, the muralist, and you didn’t get the chance to collect the knowledge from different sizes. Here you’ll have everything in one place, ready for you to enjoy the reading while revealing different layers of meaning that are hiding behind complex murals of Diego Rivera.

Featured image: Diego Rivera - Part of the mural depicting Mexican history at the National Gallery in Mexico City - Image via Yelp.com

Creation – Starting Point of an Extraordinary Career

Creation was the first of Diego Rivera murals. He started painting it in January 1922, and it was rather experimental within the encaustic technique, but it would become truly significant for the career ahead of him. The mural was painted in the Bolívar Auditorium of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, but it wasn’t easy for Rivera to finish it. Not (just) because it was his first mural, but because he had to guard himself with a pistol against right-wing students that were furious and kept surrounding him all the time. Why were those students so harsh on Diego Rivera? Well, let’s just say that the 'right-wing' is the key word here. Besides being well-known for his artistic talent and impeccable career as a painter, Rivera was also (in)famous for his personal beliefs that he stood really hard for. Those beliefs matched the communist ideals, so Diego Rivera eventually became one of the leading communists in Mexico.

Featured image: Diego Rivera - Creation, 1922 (detail) - Image via Diegorivera.org

In the Arsenal - Evidence of a Murder?

Many of Diego Rivera murals depicted Mexican history and society, especially the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The mural In the Arsenal from 1928 is no exception. Detail of the In the Arsenal mural depicted here shows Frida Kahlo while she is handing out munition to revolutionary soldiers. To the far right, there are Tina Modottiwith and her lover Julio Antonio Mella, a Cuban revolutionary. Only a few years later Mello was shot in the streets while walking with Tina, so she was accused of having hired the killer. Thanks to the influence of Diego Rivera she was freed from charges. There is one more intriguing persona in the mural. The man with the black hat looking at Tina is Vittorio Vidali, a Stalinist agent who became Tina's lover after Mella's death. There are strong indications that he was the actual killer of Mella. As The figures in this painting illustrate Rivera's political beliefs, too, there is also Leon Trotsky in the painting. How come Trotsky is there? Well, he actually lived with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo for several months while exiled in Mexico. Some tend to interpret this mural as an evidence of Rivera's prior knowledge of the murder of Julio Antonio Mella, allegedly by Vittorio Vidali. It was never proven, though.

Featured image: Diego Rivera - In the Arsenal (detail) - Image via Diegorivera.com

San Francisco murals – City Club and California School of Fine Art

In September 1930, Rivera accepted an invitation from an architect Timothy L. Pflueger to paint for him in San Francisco. After arriving, accompanied by his newlywed wife Frida Kahlo, Rivera painted his first mural in the US, The Allegory of California, at the City Club of the San Francisco Stock Exchange, for a commission of $2,500. While in San Francisco, Kahlo and Rivera worked and lived at the studio of Ralph Stackpole, who had suggested Rivera to Pflueger in the first place. At that time, Rivera met famous tennis player Helen Wills Moody, who then became one of his models for the City Club mural. Later on, Rivera painted a fresco munamed The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City for the California School of Fine Art at the San Francisco Art Institute. This one is now shadowed by the installation named Change the World or go Home by Alejandro Almanza Pereda. Several years later Diego Rivera returned to San Francisco to depict life, economy, and politics throughout the continent at the mural that became famous as the Pan American Unity

Featured image: Alejandro Almanza Pereda's installation in front of the Diego Rivera's mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City in San Francisco Art Institute - Image via Wsws.org

Pan American Unity - The Marriage of North and South

'My mural will picture the fusion between the great past of the Latin American lands, as it is deeply rooted in the soil, and the high mechanical developments of the United States', Diego Rivera wrote in 1940 when he painted the mural The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent, often referred to as the Pan American Unity, which is located at the City College of San Francisco. The mural includes representations of two of Pflueger's architectural works as well as portraits of Frida Kahlo, woodcarver Dudley C. Carter, and actress Paulette Goddard, who is depicted holding Rivera's hand as they plant a white tree together. Rivera's assistants on the mural included the pioneer African-American artist, dancer, and textile designer Thelma Johnson Streat. Somehow, tough, this 6.7 meters high and 22.5 meters long mural exists today in semi-obscurity.

Featured image: Diego Rivera - The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent (details) - Images via Diegorivera.com

Man at the Crossroads or Man, Controller of the Universe

Another example of the controversy caused by Diego Rivera’s communist side is his mural Man at the Crossroads, which he began to paint in 1933 for the Rockefeller Center in New York City. Before he finished it, it was removed after furiously negative publicity. What was it all about? The dispute was over the portrait of Vladimir Lenin within the mural. The Rockefeller Center asked for its removal, but Rivera refused. After newspapers published several negative articles on this subject, further funding was canceled to Rivera, so he couldn’t finish this piece and exhibit it at the Chicago World’s Fair as he intended. But, with a large amount of the commission gained in advance, Rivera’s answer to this kind of censorship was that he would repaint the same mural over and over again, wherever he was asked until the commission money ran out. Some say that the mural was only left covered, that it wasn’t actually destroyed.

Rivera actually did repaint the mural, this time in Mexico. It is named Man, Controller of the Universe (Man in the Time Machine), and it is nearly identical to the Man at the Crossroads mural. The Mexican version is painted on the walls of Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

Featured image: Diego Rivera - Man, Controller of the Universe, 1934 (detail) - Image via Jinawallwork.blogspot.com

Detroit Industry at Detroit Institute of Art

Detroit Industry represents probably the most famous one of all Diego Rivera murals. It consists of 27 fresco panels painted on the interior walls at the Detroit Institute of Art. The murals are painted during 1932 and 1933, and they are based on the lives of workers at the Ford Motor Company, with many of the 27 panels revealing the contrast between workers and management. Some say that Diego Rivera was inspired by the protests in Ford Motor Company because those were really actual at that time. Afterward, during the 1950s, there was a large sign placed in the courtyard defending the artistic merit of the murals while attacking his politics as 'detestable'.

Featured image: Diego Rivera - Detroit Industry mural (detail) - Image via Imgur.com
Slider images: Diego Rivera - Detroit Industry mural (details) - Images via Art.com

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park

Being an atheist and a communist had caused some trouble in Diego Rivera’s career. But, he didn’t really care. He did things his own way, as he thought was for the best, and he hardly ever made compromises about his work. There were several situations though when it was asked of him. For example, for his mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, painted for the Hotel del Prado, and which depicted Ignacio Ramírez holding a sign that said 'God does not exist', Rivera was asked to remove the sign because it had caused rage among catholic officials. Rivera refused to do it. So, the artwork was left in obscurity for nine years. Only after that time, Rivera did agree to remove the sign. But, he didn’t give up his beliefs. 'To affirm that God does not exist, I do not have to hide behind Don Ignacio Ramírez. I am an atheist and I consider religions to be a form of collective neurosis', Diego Rivera commented after the inscription removal.

Featured image: Diego Rivera - Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, 1948 (detail)- Image via Diegorivera.com
Slider image: Diego Rivera - Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, 1948 - Detail depicting Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as a boy

Follow These Artists

Diego Rivera

Follow These Galleries

Galeria Duque Arango

Medellín, Colombia


Brooklyn, New York, United States of America