We are grateful to Professor Luis-Martín Lozano for his assistance cataloguing this work.
I was tremendously impressed, tremendously excited, by the marvelous frescoes of Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco. The colors were so vibrant! Something in my chemistry responded emotionally to that kind of expression. I asked where I could find Rivera’s work and was sent to the Misrachi Gallery, which in turn sent me to San Ángel district to meet Rivera himself. His studio was in a building that looked like the tower of a castle.... I remember that monkeys were tethered at the foot of the stairs. I told Rivera of my excitement and asked if I could purchase a painting…. That was my introduction to Mexican art.
Mayer’s first trip to Mexico in 1937 (recounted in the above quote) was eye-opening. It furthered his fascination in Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente who had amassed popularity in the United States during the Great Depression for their impassioned visual rhetoric. Mayer’s initial visceral response to this rich, Mexican cultural experience, eventually brought him back to the country; over ten years later, in 1949, he returned with his wife for a similarly enchanting visit.
After the birth of their first son, Robert Nathan, the couple vacationed in Mexico, beginning in Acapulco, and continuing on to Mexico City, where they hoped to meet with Rivera again. Mayer once recalled that, “They were told [Rivera] was painting in a tree somewhere in San Miguel.” Buddy added, Inés Amor [the legendary art dealer] told them where to go, and finally [they] located the exact tree. [They] called out, and in fact Rivera was there, sitting on a bough. He let down a ladder so [they] could climb up. We found him working on a watercolor of a little boy. Beside his easel was a cup of coffee and dried-out roll. He’d been working all night on the painting, and when [they] saw it [they] were captivated immediately.
A truly fantastic tale. What is more, Mayer managed to convince Rivera to make a second, similar work depicting a young girl—the couple was hoping to have a daughter in the upcoming years. After returning home, they received this second work months later upon its completion. They then welcomed their first daughter, Ruth Florence, three years after in 1952.
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.
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. 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 noted historian 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, such as the Mayers, could acquire a slice of life à la Rivera through his images of peasant children.
The present work by Rivera is a flower carrier, yet another subgenre in the artist’s oeuvre related to his depictions of cargadores (burden carriers or carriers of bundles). This particular image of a child flower carrier, like the cargadores, should be understood as an image of labor and a document of a transforming nation. In it, the young girl holds a delicate bouquet of flowers. She sits comfortably, her legs tucked up under her sweeping, pale green skirt, while her gentle arms embrace a rag doll, or a muñeca de trapo—a recurring motif in Rivera’s paintings of young girls which reinforces their youth and symbolizes their Mexican heritage.
The flower carrier themed drawings take place in a range of settings from ambiguous to decidedly urban streets; here, the figure rests on a stone bench surrounded by a lush forest, a sweet escape from the bustling city. The work takes inspiration from Rivera’s earliest depictions of children—demonstrated by the girl’s bare feet—yet she wears colorful, relatively formal attire placing her at the midpoint of Mexico City’s transformation from agrarian locale into a sprawling metropolis. Together, all of Rivera’s images of children allegorize the rural peasants who migrated and inundated the capital in the 1930 and 40s effecting this cultural evolution; this cargador may carry a bundle of flowers in her arms, but she also bears the weight of a blossoming Mexican society on her back.
Like the figures in Rivera’s famous flower paintings, his 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. Here the young girl’s features are slightly schematized; they appear geometric and somewhat simplified. However, Rivera does aim to identify her, at least in terms of her cultural distinctiveness—her facial physiognomy highlights her Indian features, dark skin, and flushed cheeks.
A true labor of love, this touching work is a symbol of the Mexican ethos, revealing the artist’s deep reverence for his own cultural heritage and the future of his beloved Mexico City. And more, it will forever represent the heartwarming, intimate relationship between Rivera and the Mayer family for generations to come.