The Woman at the Well by Diego Rivera

Diego Rivera

The Woman at the Well, 1913, Oil on canvas, 145 x 125 cm, Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City, © 2020 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo: Courtesy of Museo Nacionlal De Arte, Mexico City

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A Worker Unfettered

Commentary by

Diego Rivera and religion parted ways early on, but the influences of Christianity on this Mexican artist's work were powerful. After a strict Catholic schooling, the budding painter enrolled in the San Carlos Academy at the age of 12. There, he was taught by Santiago Rebull, a painter shaped by the ideals of the devout brotherhood of painters in Rome known as the Nazarenes. Later, in Spain, Rivera would be further inspired by the religious art of El Greco. His youthful formation was steeped in an art of sacred narrative and expression.

From Spain Rivera went to Paris, and befriended Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and other painters at the vanguard of an art unfettered by religion. He became intrigued by the new, daring style of Cubism.

The Woman at the Well was painted in Paris in 1913, and Cubism’s multi-faceted perspectives seem well suited to Rivera’s exploration of the conflicts between his past and his present.

The work might best be interpreted as adapting a biblical subject for a secular context. Perhaps it is an expression of solidarity. Though far from the fields of Mexico, and enjoying the very cosmopolitan artistic circles of Montparnasse, Rivera felt a strong sense of national identity, which drew him back to familiar imagery from home even in the midst of his innovative artistic experiments. Moreover, he was imbibing Marxist teaching, and was aware of the Communist movement’s celebration of women as workers. He painted The Woman at the Well in the same year that he produced The Adoration of the Virgin (another of his few overtly religious subjects) in which he depicted Mary with the appearance of a Mexican peasant woman. In The Woman at the Well, likewise, the large blocks of the woman’s arm and leg suggest the sturdy solidity of a country worker.

The woman is clearly defined amid the disrupted planes of Rivera’s painting: the furrowed brow, the rose sleeve, the curve of grey to form her hip. Jesus, however, is almost indistinguishable amid the jumbled shapes and symbols. A spray of brown at the upper left of the composition may suggest hair, but no face is visible. Instead we see an orb with a bright bird to the left of it—perhaps a phoenix (an ancient symbol of resurrection). If Jesus is there, he is revealed only to the woman, not yet to the viewer.

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